Plumbing the depths of surveillance with submersible drones

A remotely controlled unmanned underwater vehicle glides through a tank of water at a live demonstration display at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International convention in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.


By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 2, 2013

Think of them as sleeper cells that go dormant for years, waiting for the signal that will send them into action.

This is the high-tech version: unmanned drones that the government plans to plant on the ocean floor, ready to speed to the surface — and beyond — for surveillance, search-and-rescue and other operational support.

The latest developmental program to start making the transition from science fiction to the drawing board is so new that while the uses seem to be limited only by imagination, there are new ethical and policy issues to consider, from rules for implementation to the potential for launching an underwater arms race.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding the construction of deep-sea capsules containing dormant aerial drones. DARPA documents say the agency is also willing to consider other types of unmanned vehicles that travel on the water but accomplish the same mission, though there are no current plans to arm any of them, according to a DARPA statement. The call for proposals made public earlier this year offers scant details, relying on the imagination of interested inventors.

“Today, cost and complexity limit the Navy to fewer weapons systems and platforms, so resources are strained to operate over vast maritime areas,” a DARPA statement said in January after the program was announced. “Unmanned systems and sensors are commonly envisioned to fill coverage gaps and deliver action at a distance.

“However, for all of the advances in sensing, autonomy, and unmanned platforms in recent years, the usefulness of such technology becomes academic when faced with the question, ‘How do you get the systems there?’ ”

DARPA officials declined to comment on the program but did acknowledge awarding 13 Phase 1 contracts to corporations and entities like Lockheed Martin Corporation and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at the end of fiscal year 2013. Initial awards were anticipated to be between $1.25 and $1.75 million, increasing drastically to $27 million-$30 million for phases two and three. DARPA expects to support at least one major sea test in the Western Pacific in fiscal year 2017.

The systems will lie on the deep ocean floor in special containers “for years at a time,” the statement said. Their capabilities could include networking, surveillance, disruption, deception, rescue, “or any other mission that benefits from being pre-distributed and hidden.”

The research agency is seeking technology in three key areas: communications, deep ocean risers to contain the drones and the actual drones themselves, the statement said.

The documents state that nearly half of the world’s oceans are deeper than four kilometers, which provides for cheap stealth and storage. Retrieval costs of the drones and their containers would be prohibitive to others and the risk of losing a drone would be low because they would be unarmed and therefore less volatile.

“To make this work, we need to address technical challenges like extended survival of nodes under extreme ocean pressure, communications to wake-up the nodes after years of sleep, and efficient launch of payloads to the surface,” DARPA program manager Andy Coon said in the statement. “We are simply offering an alternative path to realize these missions without requiring legacy ships and aircraft to launch the technology, and without growing the reach and complexity of unmanned platforms.”

Maritime experts, academics and human rights advocates were divided on the merits of such a program but all agreed that a wider discussion on the use of drones was warranted.

“’Autonomous systems,’ whether they’re weapons systems or systems designed to provide surveillance, or simply systems designed for any number of commercial applications, will be developed,” said Coast Guard Capt. Peter Troedsson, a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s far more important that we accept this as a reality and develop accompanying policy guidelines.”

Troedsson believes that enhanced capabilities in maritime domain awareness would combat illegal activity and contribute significantly to the national security of the United States if they can help with search-and-rescue response, fisheries enforcement and the fight against human and narcotics trafficking. Mark Gubrud, a researcher from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, cited concerns about degradation, tampering, usefulness in regard to their short life after being launched and how launches could be viewed as a provocation leading to a pre-emptive strike.

“Pre-deploying large amounts of warfighting hardware, including ‘non-lethal’ autonomous weapons and possibly lethal ones as well, over broad areas of the Western Pacific, or any other waters well outside the recognized boundaries of U.S. territorial waters, is potentially provocative and offensive to China and other nations,” Gubrud said. “How would we react if China placed similar systems on the seabed offshore of the United States, or around various geographic locations where it is thought that American and Chinese forces might clash?”

“China is potentially capable of advanced robotics and deep-sea operations against systems of this kind. If we challenge China to a high-tech arms race on the ocean floor, it is not clear who will prevail.”

Whether tensions arise over the deployment of the drones depends on where they are placed, according to Coast Guard Capt. Andrew Norris, a maritime law scholar who has taught at both the National Defense University and Naval War College.

Norris said there doesn’t seem to be anything in international maritime law that would prohibit them on the sea floor over 200 miles off a country’s coast. Within 12 miles of shore would violate national sovereignty; 12-200 miles is part of a country’s exclusive economic zone — a somewhat gray area — where a nation has rights to natural resources and jurisdiction over artificial islands, platforms and marine scientific research.

Norris said other issues include whether drone pods adhere to previous maritime agreements. Will they be classified as ships or aircraft? Will they hinder navigation? What will they be doing? Will they eventually be armed?

There are also navigational issues once the drones reach the surface, Norris said. Different rules apply to watercraft and aircraft.

Norris said intelligence gathering technology in the ocean is nothing new. He likened the drone pods to Soviet-laid devices — called Auxiliary Gatherers of Intelligence — he saw just outside U.S. territorial waters off Norfolk, Va., while he was in the Navy in the 1980s. He said devices also were laid in the depths to detect submarines.

Human rights advocates said that while drones are better than weapons that kill indiscriminately like land mines, there are obvious concerns with the U.S. government’s secrecy and the potential for improper use.

“The good thing about drones is they have the potential to be used with more precision to target enemies; the bad thing is that, particularly when used covertly, they may make it too easy for the government that has them to use lethal force when it’s unlawful or strategically unwise,” said Daphne Eviatar, senior council of law and security for Human Rights First, a non-partisan, non-profit human rights organization. “Certainly the clandestine operation of drones, whether by air or by sea, threatens to involve the U.S. in wars it should not be fighting and is a form of ‘mission creep’ that might be considered world policing.”

Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an independent, non-governmental research and advocacy organization that has studied drones, said rules need to be written now.

“It’s only a matter of time before actors that the U.S. disagrees with, or is actively combatting, has access to drones — surveillance or weaponized,” she said. “Anti-drone technology is being developed as we speak for just such a day. But the United States should also make sure that, no matter who has drones, it can claim the moral high ground for their use.”

Other DARPA programs indicate an intense focus on this sort of autonomous drone technology. DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office launched the Hydra program in July, according to the call for proposals. This program seeks to develop a delivery system that would separate from manned military assets like Navy ships, submarines or even airplanes and then launch unmanned underwater, surface or aerial drones specializing in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and mine counter-measure operations.

The drones would plug into the delivery system, which could potentially be a submersible like a submarine, and operate for “weeks or months” autonomously, according to a DARPA statement. These unmanned delivery systems will be designed to navigate in “shallow international waters near shorelines.”


Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert, left, and Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus observe an X-47B drone make the historic first unmanned aircraft landing at sea from the flight deck of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier July 10, 2013.

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