Navy Tests Ocean Drones in RI’s Narragansett Bay
NEWPORT, R.I. - Just beneath the placid, sailboat-dotted surface of Narragansett Bay, torpedo-shaped vehicles spin and pivot to their own rhythm, carrying out missions programmed by their U.S. Navy masters.
The bay known as a playground for the rich is the testing ground for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, where the Navy is working toward its goal of achieving a squadron of self-driven, undersea vehicles.
One of the gadgets recently navigated its own way from Woods Hole, Mass., to Newport, completing several pre-set tasks in what the military calls an unprecedented feat.
Technology under consideration by the military is often tested aboard cylinder-shaped vehicles with a diameter of about 20 inches. But the center also tests its own prototypes, including one dubbed Razor, which can propel itself by using flippers, like a turtle, for stealth.
The Navy hopes its drones will eventually pilot themselves across oceans. The vehicles are already used to detect mines and map the ocean floor and, with tweaks over the next several years, the military says they will be applied more to intelligence gathering and, in the more distant future, anti-submarine warfare.
"We do see these autonomous undersea vehicles as game changers," said Christopher Egan, a program manager at NUWC.
Compared with aerial drones, the undersea vehicles can be challenging to control from a distance. The water distorts the transmission of signals, and the drones have to contend with boat traffic, swirling currents, and obstacles on the ocean floor.
They are typically powered by batteries, but their endurance has been sharply limited by the lack of a stronger power source that will allow for safe handling by sailors who deploy and collect the devices aboard submarines.
With advances in alternative energy sources, particularly fuel cells, the Navy says it is close to achieving a fully independent drone. By 2017, the Navy aims to have a large, unmanned vehicle that can stay out for 70 days. Within the next decade, it wants to field its first full squadron.
"We’ve seen the advances of unmanned aerial vehicles and what that provides to the war fighter," said Navy Capt. Brian Howes, who is involved in planning for the vehicles as commander of Submarine Development Squadron 5 in Washington state. "We’re pushing the technology to have the same leap for our unmanned undersea vehicles."