Surface Forces: China Kidnaps An American Droid


December 18, 2016: The waters of the western Pacific are increasingly populated by AUVs (Autonomous Undersea Vehicle) set loose to collect technical data on the water all the way from the surface to the sea bottom. Increasingly these AUVs are being caught by fishing nets by accident or seized by warships on purpose to make a political point or, eventually, interfere with legal data collection that is nevertheless very useful in submarine operations. The AUVs are also called UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles) and they have been getting cheaper, more capable and more proliferating. After the recent incident with China the U.S. pointed out that the kidnapped droid was using commercially available technology and was worth about $150,000. Faced with a “grand theft droid” charge China agreed to return the AUV.

Until the recent incident with China most of the AUV incidents were accidents and curiosities, not diplomatic showdowns. For example, in November, for the second time in 2016, Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea have caught an American AUVs in their nets. These torpedo like devices are clearly marked as to what they are and the American embassy will send someone to pick them up if found. These AUVs are silent, very small, and able to operate on their own for up to a year. The first models were two meters (six feet) long and weighed 59 kg (130 pounds) and built to operate completely on its own collecting valuable information about underwater “weather”. What this AUV does is automatically move slowly (30-70 kilometers a day) underwater, collecting data on salinity and temperature and transmitting back via a satellite link every hour or so as the AUV briefly reaches the surface. This data improves the effectiveness of sonars used by friendly forces, making it easier to detect and track enemy submarines. That’s because the speed of sound travelling through water varies according the temperature and salinity of the water. Having more precise data on salinity and temperature in a large body of water makes your underwater sensors (sonar, which detects sound to determine what is out there) more accurate. This data can also assist submarines in better avoiding detection. The first of these navy AUVs could dive as far down as 200 meters (620 feet) and later models were be able to go down to 1,000 meters or more.

These AUVs use a unique form of propulsion. They have wings, and a small pump, that fills and empties a chamber. This changes its buoyancy, causing it to glide down, then back up. This maneuver moves the AUV forward. Equipped with GPS and a navigation and communications computer, the AUV is programmed (or instructed via the sat link) to monitor a particular area. The small pump uses less electricity than a propeller (to move it at the same speed). Thus these UAVs can remain at sea for up to a year on one battery charge. Before the battery runs out the owner has to direct the UAV and a ship to a rendezvous where the AUV will remain on the surface and the ship will haul it aboard, replace the battery and perform any other needed maintenance. Small AUV maintenance detachments (of two or three sailors) can be flown to a ship that is close enough to make the rendezvous. In some cases you can direct the AUV to move close to land, which makes it even easier to find a boat to go out and get the AUV. These AUVs can be launched from ships or shore. In 2009 an AUV of this type crossed the Atlantic on its own, as part of a civilian research project.

The navy currently has over 2000 of these AUVs in service or on order and plans to keep increasing this robotic ASW fleet as long as they keep demonstrating they can do the job. This is part of a plan to have UAVs replace many of the ocean survey ships currently used for this kind of work. The survey ships take temperature and salinity reading from instruments deployed from the ship as well as a global network of several thousand research buoys. Unlike the survey ships the AUVs could be deployed in areas where hostile subs are believed to be operating, and be kept at it as long as needed. If successful in regular use, larger versions are planned, equipped with more sensors and longer duration.

The U.S. Navy apparently has a lot of these AUVs operating in the South China Sea because of the disputes everyone is having with China over Chinese claims to nearly all the South China Sea. It’s not just AUVs Filipino fishermen come across. In 2015 and 2013 fishermen found Chukar target drone. The first one had a curious history because it landed intact in late 2012 and then drifted over 2,000 kilometers from Guam until it reached the Philippines. The Chukar is designed to float so that it can be recovered and reused.




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