Ocean Drones Could Rise To The Surface On Command
January 16, 2013

DARPA’s New Program: Robots From The Deep Blue Sea

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

While in the process of inventing methods with which to quickly deploy drones to the other end of the world, DARPA has come up with an idea that resembles something from a Michael Bay movie.

The title of their press statement says it all: “Falling Up: DARPA To Launch Just-In-Time Payloads From Bottom of Sea.”

There´s a lot of cost and complexity involved when moving a Navy vessel or troops across the water, and these elements are multiplied during times of battle. DARPA mentions that they´ve long used unmanned systems or drones to facilitate the Navy by filling “coverage gaps,” but have wrestled with the issue of delivering these systems where they are needed. This is the dilemma DARPA´s new Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) program has been created to solve.

To put it in the simplest of terms, the UFP aims to bury these drones on the sea floor in spherical containers, waking them up remotely when they are needed. These drones will then break free from their slumber and rise to the surface, thereby “falling up.”

“The goal is to support the Navy with distributed technologies anywhere, anytime over large maritime areas. If we can do this rapidly, we can get close to the areas we need to affect, or become widely distributed without delay,” explained DARPA program manager Andy Coon in the press statement.

“To make this work, we need to address technical challenges like extended survival of nodes under extreme ocean pressure, communications to wake-up the nodes after years of sleep, and efficient launch of payloads to the surface.”

The UFP brings with it just as much complexity as the issue it was created to solve, the least of which is building drones and storage units for the drones which are capable of withstanding the high pressures of the sea floor. The program will also rely on a solid communications platform, capable of waking up the drones remotely when they are needed. This could be the sticking point in the entire program. A remote call to wake up the drone which goes unanswered diminishes the power of such a system. Alternatively, a false call could leave drones floating on the ocean´s surface, waiting for their next command.

Meanwhile, the DARPA program will still need to perfect an underwater storage facility as well as “risers,” the vehicles which will deliver these drones to the surface on command.

It is important to note that DARPA isn´t using the UFP as a weapons platform. As complex as storing unmanned vehicles at the bottom of the ocean might be, throwing weapons into the equation would only make matters all the more difficult. As it stands, DARPA plans to use this program to aid the Navy in areas where hostility is likely and even probable. As such, the UFP program is also concerned with using low-cost technologies which it can easily lose. Therefore, this program isn´t expected to be a liability to national security, should another country go out in search of these drones. This is yet another reason why DARPA isn´t planning on using this as a weapons platform. After all, how secure is it to leave weapons out in the open, even if “out in the open” means at the bottom of an unsecured seafloor?

“We are simply offering an alternative path to realize these missions without requiring legacy ships and aircraft to launch the technology, and without growing the reach and complexity of unmanned platforms,” said Coon, in closing.