Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Knowingly Diving into the Unknown

By Simon Grose

Advancing autonomous vessel technologies are revolutionising underwater search – and warfare.

The search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 provided a glimpse over the side into the deep pool of underwater detection.

It began with ships trawling sound receptors below the thermocline layer – the layer warmed by solar energy – which reflects sound. After several detections of pings, a Bluefin autonomous underwater vehicle supplied by the US Navy began searching a targeted section of ocean floor of about 2000 km2.

More robot than drone – it was preprogrammed, not guided by a human at a computer terminal on a ship, in Perth or in Houston – it corkscrewed obediently down to depths of at least 4 km to scan the bottom for sonar reflections from the wreck that a few weeks before was another sophisticated machine flying through the air carrying almost 300 people. When this was found it would return with lights and cameras.

As this was going on in April, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute hosted a conference “to discuss key aspects of what will arguably be the most expensive and technologically complex defence capability project in the history of the nation”.

How to best replace our current fleet of Collins submarines? How best to spend an estimated $40 billion (and inevitably rising) to have new subs ready to dive by 2030? How best to keep jobs in Adelaide?

So many contemporary issues. But by 2030 they will be ancient history as the underwater theatre of war fills with new players and a huge audience that sees, hears and whispers to each other but never applauds. By compaison, the Bluefin is a dummo.

The US has bought 150 Wave Glider anti-submarine units for US$53 million from a company called Liquid Robotics. They consist of a surface glider connected by wire to an underwater Bluefinesque detector. Taking power from wind, wave and sun, and bestowed with artificial intelligence, one of their roles is to track submarines and report back to ships, planes and satellites.

NATO is testing similar systems. No doubt the Japanese, Chinese and Israelis are too.

Underwater sensor networks of units on the sea bottom and surface and subsurface buoys are being deployed, while the US has announced a project to develop an undersea drone.

So, designing armed machines to carry 50 or more Aussies underwater with the food, air, bunks and interpersonal protocols they require means planning to send them into battle against adversaries that have more room for weapons, are cheaper to build and much cheaper to lose because no humans are on board. If they are not totally obsolete and vulnerable in 2030 they will become so over their 20–30-year working life.

Who’d want to be a Defence Minister facing dilemmas like that? Who’d want to be a submariner? Call up the drones.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (