The MoD is to develop an unmanned submarine for the Royal Navy in a project that will bring together a range of new underwater technologies. The contract for the Battlespace Access Unmanned Underwater Vehicle programme is due to be awarded next week.
BAE Systems, one of the competing companies, has just completed sea trials of its Marlin unmanned underwater vehicle technology demonstrator. The three-year project was to create a torpedo-shaped anti-mine robot that could be deployed from a conventional submarine.
But now the MoD plans to ratchet up its investment in UUV technology after years of focusing on similar mission-specific projects.
Keith Allen, BAE Systems' underwater group business development director, hopes the successful demonstration of the Marlin technology will mean the company will be given the chance to develop it further under the new programme.
'The Battlespace Access project is looking at a wide range of technologies. We hoped we would be a frontrunner with our previous work. But this represents a broader approach to the use of UUV technologies.'
The programme is likely to pull together a range of projects including the development of sub-sea covert communications, autonomous mission management, submarine recovery and high- endurance propulsion systems. It will run until 2005, with the objective of producing demonstration technologies.
The competing companies include Qinetiq, System Equipment and Assessment, British Maritime Technology and Thales Underwater Systems.
The increasing naval interest in UUVs follows the success of unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator. The US Navy also has its own extensive UUV research programme called Organic Mine Countermeasures, which includes craft such as the Manta.
This is developing mine-detecting torpedo-shaped UUVs capable of 'hovering' in the water for close mine inspection. It is also working on tracked vehicles such as the Surf Zone Crawler, which can travel up to 10 miles through water. A flying anti-mine vehicle is also being developed. It is essentially a laser radar-equipped Predator, which directs anti-mine gunfire.
One of the programme's UUVs is to be tested in fleet exercises next September. Known as the Slocum Glider, it was designed by Washington University's Applied Physics Laboratory. It is a slow-moving robot that can operate for years in the ocean, moving from shallow to deep depths collecting data on coastal waters where minefields may be present.
It does this by using a phase change material, which turns from a solid to a liquid with just a few tenths of a degree difference in sea temperatures. That change powers a pump that alters the vehicle's buoyancy. The robot also uses a pair of wings to shift the submarine forward.
As well as developing UUVs and UAVs, the US Navy is working on an unmanned surface vehicle, which will operate as a minesweeper.
A US Navy official told The Engineer that the MoD has indicated interest in both the USV and the Slocum Glider technologies.