A Quick Discussion on the Future of Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS)

Sonar image of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, 17,000+ feet under the ocean's surface, captured by REMUS 6000 on board the RV Petrel ("Maritime Executive", 2019).

Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMVs) is a catch-all term describing all unmanned platforms responsible for missions on and below bodies of water. For those who are unfamiliar with UMVs, we'll start with one example: the Remote Environmental Measuring UnitS (REMUS) 6000. The REMUS 6000 is an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) mainly used in recon situations; they're good at searching large areas of water, capturing images and creating maps in both shallow and deep applications. The Akagi, a Japanese aircraft carrier that went down in the Battle of Midway in 1942, was discovered using the REMUS 6000 platform in October of 2019.

The Battle of Midway & The REMUS 6000

A REMUS 6000 hangs ("REMUS 6000", 2019).

The Battle of Midway - have you heard of it?

Strategically located between Hawaii and Japan, just beneath the Bering Sea in the North Pacific, the Japanese planned to claim the Midway Atoll for themselves. Just six months after they attacked the atoll on December 7, 1941, Japan was aiming to return for capture. The U.S. had a naval air station and submarine refit base already established. They put a kink in the Japanese plans by cracking their comms codes - the U.S. was waiting. We'd moved our aircraft; when the attacks on the island began, they were hitting nothing. We were waiting in the sea. Between June 4 and June 7 of 1942, seven ships went down during this three-day battle - four were Japanese, three were American. Over 3k Japanese lives were lost with America adding over 300 to their WWII toll ("Battle of Midway...", 2019).

Google map visual of the North Pacific, showing Japan to the left, the Midway Atoll in the middle, Hawaii and the US/Mexico to the right
Map showing the location of Japan, Midway, Hawaii, the US and Mexico (Google Maps, 2019).

The Midway Atoll lies within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument which is the world's largest marine conservation area. This area includes 582,578 square miles of the Pacific and was established in 2006 to preserve not only Hawaiian cultural significance, but to also preserve and explore its maritime history (Maritime history, 2019). This has supported multiple research expeditions including the October 2019 discovery of the Akagi.

The Akagi was found 18,000 feet under the ocean surface by the Research Vessel Petrel's REMUS 6000. Needless to say, a human stumbling upon this wreckage wasn't going to happen. Using the REMUS 6000, the RV Pretrel was able to search an incredibly large area of ocean floor without anyone getting wet. This system is pre-programmed before it's put into the water by it's launch and recovery system from the stern of the ship. It can search until it needs to recharge, using its sonar to paint a picture of the nooks and crannies. Thanks to this technology, images like you saw at the start of this post are created, studied, and verified by both researchers and yet another UMV: a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). These underwater vehicles are tethered to the ship and controlled by an operator on board. With live-feed cameras and arms to put to work, these vehicles can be directed and manipulated to take photos, record video, take samples, and even lift items out of the water for recovery missions. UMVs have many applications - in this example, they were preserving history.

The Future of UMVs

Now that we've gotten to know a UMV a little bit, let's discuss the look forward. An article written on 22OCT19 by Brian Sprowl in Unmanned Systems Magazine discusses the present and future of these underwater technologies. UMVs aide in search and rescue, search and recovery, sampling... they enable us to conduct research, investigations, and experimentation without requiring a human to risk going below the surface. Where are they headed? A few companies mentioned in this article have some ideas.

Dive Technologies intends to bring a rapid-configure AUV to the industry; their aim is to keep these technologies low cost with the ability to be transformed into whatever bot is needed for the job at hand as quickly as possible. Anyone privy to technology knows progression begets time-saving options; the faster, the better. Dive Technologies expects their first DIVE-LD AUV to hit the water for tests in 2020 as an offshore geophysical surveillance system. It'll come off the shelf with a standard survey package (Sprowl, 2019). They boast their AUV is infinitely customizable (Sgobbo, et al., 2019).

(Sgobbo, et al., 2019)

HydroComp, founded in 1984, is aimed at naval architect's and shipbuilder's research and software. When designing their systems for organizations and individuals, their goal is to take the decent ideas brought to them and make them better, with zero constraints on possibilities and optimization unless a company comes to them having already selected certain components. In those cases, they push boundaries while accommodating the client. Their HydroComp AUV, NavCad, is used for vessel speed and performance analysis, allowing the best picks for watercraft construction. Their overall vision is to aide in efficient energy use while still designing systems that can finish the jobs. This saves battery life and/or fuel without sacrificing performance. They're the guys that aide those who don't have the in-house developer staff that other, larger companies do.

Houston Mechatronics' aim is to deliver quality, effective products that also look good. Their Aquanaut, for example, is aesthetically designed to please the eye while tech-savvy enough to be able to go from AUV to ROV. If you remember the example of the Akagi discovery, the RV Petrel used a UAV to search and discover the wreckage and then an ROV for live-feed, close photos, etc. The remotely operated vehicles are tethered to the ship, unlike their AUV counterparts, with an operator who watches their actions through live-feed video; these machines normally have end effectors of some sort that allow them to interact with the world around them. They're able to lift and move things, take samples, and more. The amazing design of the Aquanaut means a future where two separate UMVs do not have to be used in one operation. This means less weight on the ship, less room taken by all the parts and pieces that go along with them, such as launch and recovery mechanisms. This incredible vehicle is equipped with acoustic, optical, and laser tools - all input is then compressed, allowing for less space taken up by data, while simultaneously allowing the operator to keep full control throughout. The company feels the more eye-pleasing technology looks, the more likely folks will want to work with it. They hope to get more youth involved in the UMV technology scene (Sprowl, 2019).

The Aquanaut transforming into ROV mode (Sprowl, 2019).

Thoughts...?

Technology, in some form or another, has progressed since the beginning of humankind; we are problem-solvers. If something is hard to do, we find an easier way to do it. If something needs to be done, but a human alone cannot accomplish the task, we create technology that can do it for us. In these instances, we are finding more and more tech-savvy ways to explore, experiment, and conquer the ocean. Every step forward tells us more about the world below us.

If we look at the efforts of all three of these companies listed in Brian Sprowl's article, we see engineers aiming at making configuration easier, UMVs more energy-efficient yet effective, and the vision of combining multiple systems into one unit and designing them so they're visually appealing. This is exactly the direction I'd expect any technology to go, especially considering the Houston Mechatronics's aim at combining AUVs and ROVs. As we've seen in countless other forms of technology - our phones that are now banks, cameras, and the internet, for example - the evolution of combining multiple devices into one makes for getting the job done faster with less bulk to deal with.

What are your thoughts? Do these companies' visions of the future match yours? Leave a comment - let's discuss.


References

Battle of Midway: World war two Japanese carrier wrecks found. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50124313

Sgobbo, J., Lebo, B., & Russo, S. (2019). Dive technologies [PowerPoint]. Retrieved from https://www2.whoi.edu/site/marinerobotics/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2019/07/Dive-Technologies-Flash-Talk.pdf

Maritime heritage. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/maritime/

REMUS 6000. (2019). Retrieved from https://www2.whoi.edu/site/osl/vehicles/remus-6000/

Sprowl, B. (2019). From Unmanned Systems Magazine: The present and future of commercial unmanned maritime systems. Retrieved from https://www.auvsi.org/unmanned-systems-magazine-present-and-future-commercial-unmanned-maritime-systems

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