In an highly-anticipated joint venture program, the governments of France and Britain have come together to build a prototype autonomous system, capable of locating and neutralizing naval mines and other Underwater Improvised Explosive Devices (or UWIEDs). Part of a 2012 agreement between the two countries, the project aims at providing high-tech mine countermeasures systems to the Royal Navy as well as its French counterpart.
Sea mines are an integral part of naval warfare. Historically, they have been around since the Elizabethan age, when the plan for the first naval mine was developed by Ralph Rabbards. Later, during the American War of Independence, David Bushnell created the first practical underwater explosive, to be used against the British colonizers. World War II saw the rise of more advanced naval mines that could detect enemy ships via magnetic sensors and therefore, cause greater destruction.
Mine-hunting developed as a countermeasure against underwater mines. Upon identifying the target using sonar, the mine-hunter vessel neutralizes the explosive with the help of deep-sea divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Today, the availability of improved technologies has indeed led to more sophisticated and efficient mine-hunting techniques. However, such methods are still very time-consuming and expensive, especially in comparison to the mine-laying process.
Consequently, the French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA) has teamed up with UK’s Defence Equipment and Support organization, to create high-tech robotic systems that could accomplish the task of mine-hunting with greater ease and accuracy. The contract for the Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) program has recently been awarded to Thales and BAE Systems, by the Organization for Joint Armaments Cooperation (OCCAR).
Divided in three stages, the program will include the designing, manufacturing as well as testing of remotely-controlled mine countermeasures systems. Further experiments will be conducted to evaluate the mine-hunting capabilities of SLAM-F (the French future mine countermeasures technology) as well as Britain’s MHC (Mine countermeasures and Hydrography Capability).
Each of these underwater robotic systems will contain an unmanned surface vehicle (USV), featuring a highly-intuitive navigation system, a threat detection and neutralization technology similar to the kind found in ROVs and an advanced obstacle avoidance sonar. A set of geolocated Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) will be used to locate the target, with the help of synthetic aperture sonar. Furthermore, these mine-hunting robots would make use of Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar (T-SAS), with multi-view high-resolution imaging. The AUVs will be remotely-controlled from a command ship or an onshore operation centre, via high data-rate communication channels.
The team includes developers from BAE Systems and Thales, in addition to a number of British and French contractors. The main surface vessel will be provided by UK-based ASV Ltd, while ECA will supply the unmanned underwater vehicles. SAAB will develop the ROVS, and Wood & Douglas will construct the communication links. According to the company’s spokesperson, the Portable Operations Center (POC) will be built by Thales. BAE Systems’ Mission Management System, on the other hand, will be responsible for managing the information and command systems.