DARPA is looking for technology communities that can team to provide expertise and innovation for small sensors, expendable and small unmanned systems, and distributed communications and navigation technology.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is researching a drone that can hibernate on the ocean floor for years at a time before being launched to the surface and into the air.
The “Upward Falling Payload” (UFP) concept centers on developing deployable, unmanned, nonlethal distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes could be remotely activated when needed and recalled to the surface. As DARPA terms it, they “fall upward.”
The new drones are part of a new focus by the U.S. military to develop and improve technology for emerging threats. “Today, cost and complexity limit the Navy to fewer weapons systems and platforms, causing strain on resources that must operate over vast maritime areas. Unmanned systems and sensors are commonly envisioned to fill coverage gaps and take action at a distance. However, power and logistics to deliver these systems over vast ocean areas limit their utility. The Upward Falling Payload (UFP) program intends to overcome these barriers,” DARPA said on its website.
DARPA’s statement continues: “Nearly 50 percent of the world’s oceans are deeper than 4 km, which provides vast areas for concealment and storage. As a consequence, the cost to retrieve UFP nodes is asymmetric with the likely cost to produce and distribute them to the seafloor. Concealment provided by the sea also provides the opportunity to quickly engage remote assets that may have been dormant and undetected for long periods of time, while its vastness allows simultaneous operation across great distances. Getting close to objects without warning, and instantiating distributed systems without delay, are key attributes of UFP capability.”
The UFP system would have three key subsystems:
- The payload, which executes waterborne or airborne applications after being deployed to the surface
- The UFP riser, which provides pressure tolerant encapsulation and launch of the payload
- The UFP communications, which trigger the UFP riser to launch.
The program would need to demonstrate a system that can:
- survive for years under extreme pressure
- be triggered reliably from standoff commands
- rapidly rise through a water column and deploy its payload.
The drones wouldn’t require fuel, as they would be powered with energy generated by ocean currents. Ocean drones would be difficult to manufacture, however, because researchers would need to figure out how to activate the drone, how to help the drone breach the surface, and make sure the drone is protected in salt water for long periods.
Phase 2. The program is completing its first phase and is about to enter its second. During Phase 1, DARPA supported more than 10 study and design efforts to figure out approaches for long-range communications, deep-ocean high-pressure containment, and payload launch. The study teams also addressed a variety of missions for the payloads.
“In this first phase, we really learned about how the pieces come together, and built a community of developers to think differently about unmanned distributed solutions for the maritime domain,” said Andy Coon, DARPA Program Manager for the effort. “The trick is to show how these systems offer lower-cost alternatives to traditional approaches, and that they scale well to large open-ocean areas.”
In the next Phase, DARPA intends to learn from the studies, and develop and demonstrate prototype systems. DARPA is seeking teams to develop UFP nodes that combine expertise in both deep-ocean engineering and advanced payload development.
“We’re also looking for the communications technologies for these nodes. As long as you can command the nodes remotely and quickly, and don’t have to send a ship out to launch it, you’re in good shape. Some Phase 1 approaches were more exotic than others, but we were pleased by the range of challenging options,” said Coon.
In today’s fiscally constrained environment, such a system of pre-positioned, deep-sea nodes could provide a full range of maritime mission sets that are more cost-effective than existing manned or long-range unmanned naval assets.
For Phase 2, DARPA is particularly looking for technology communities that can team to provide expertise and innovation for small sensors, expendable and small unmanned systems, distributed communications and navigation technology, novel long-range underwater communications, and long-endurance mechanical and electrical systems that can survive for years in dormant states.