A drone at EvoLogics' booth at WEST 2024.

A drone at EvoLogics' booth at WEST 2024. Defense One / Lauren C. Williams

Meet the German company developing sub drones that pass data with sound

Divers’ search-and-rescue missions could soon get assists from drone swarms.

SAN DIEGO—A flash of fiery reddish orange caught my eye as I was speed-walking through WEST 2024, the Navy’s annual IT conference: what looked like a cute little drone boat a tad bigger than a toddler’s walker, and some matching red-orange baubles.

Francisco Bustamante, EvoLogics’ director of operations and sales, explained that it was a suite of tech, including a surface drone and nodes to build a WiFi network underwater. 

D1: This is a data network that uses audio?

BUSTAMANTE: We started working with different products for underwater data transmission. That was one of the key technologies that we developed because there was basically no solution. Wi-Fi doesn't work. You can use optical systems, but they are also limited to the turbidity. So for any long-range communication, you need acoustic systems. 

You can use this as a technology to enable the operation of unmanned underwater vehicles, or even for manned vehicles...to position them underwater, and to transmit data to the surface.

Now that we have these enabling technologies, we have moved to other concepts. We are developing autonomous vehicles for different survey applications. We started with a survey vehicle for the surface, which is a sonar boat. It can perform different missions depending on what payload sensors that it has. We have single-beam and multi-beam echo sounders for water depth. And we have front-looking sonar and sidescan sonar to do, basically, object detection. 

The object detection we have included technologies with AI. In order to automate, we work with pre-trained datasets. And then the vehicle can look specifically for certain types of objects, for example, in assisting a police force looking for missing persons in water bodies or for finding mines in shallow waters, coastal areas, and so on.

So you’ve developed a surface vehicle and underwater connectivity. Next, is an unmanned underwater vehicle this year?

Yes, this vehicle can also carry different payloads and support survey missions. But the advantage being that it can also navigate closer to the floor, seafloor. And also it can obtain better resolution of the images or even, with support of the cameras, can go and look at some specific items that have been found. The important thing is that you always have a limitation in terms of communication underwater, even with our technology—and any technology basically—you have limited bandwidth. So you cannot be sending video and streaming on YouTube.

What kind of data can you send?

Text messages or text files. We can even send images like pictures, but single frames. So in that case, it's important that the systems—and this is something we have focused a lot on—that the systems can work autonomously and have enough intelligence [so] if the vehicle detects obstacles, that it's capable of avoiding them, if the vehicle detects objects of interest that it will communicate that information in a reduced way in terms of data size, but still giving the operator the opportunity to maybe change the mission and return to that point to have a closer look. 

Any detection that is made by the vehicle is already geotagged. So any further inspection—for example, sending a diver—can be much more easy, easily done, than if there was only a detection without knowing where it was.

What is the range of the surface vehicle, the underwater vehicle, and the underwater communication network?

The surface vehicle can travel up to 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) on one battery load. Normally, it's not going to travel that distance linearly. It searches [in] a grid pattern, so it covers a certain area. But that's basically the linear distance it can travel. 

This vehicle can also do about the same distance: about 40 kilometers underwater. This vehicle is relatively small, so it's about one-meter-10 [centimeters] or so, so it's very, very compact. And the idea is that you can easily deploy it. But on the other hand, we have the capability, thanks to the communication and the positioning, to operate multiple vehicles at the same time in coordination, so that you can act as swarms and cover a larger area in less time.

We have prepared a toolset that allows us to configure different solutions depending on the customer needs. For example, for port security, we can have different surface vehicles, underwater vehicles, sensor stations, that can then as a whole, create a detection network that can be used to prevent, for example, any kind of foreign vehicle that is in the area, or divers and so on, this can be configured in flexible ways depending on the requirements.

So the network that goes along with it covers that whole 25 miles?

The acoustic devices will have different ranges, depending on the frequencies that we're using. The longest range is up to seven miles, so 10 kilometers, with the lowest-frequency devices.  Medium range is 3.5 kilometers. And then we have high-frequency devices that can do up to one kilometer. But they can work, also, in network configuration. You can place multiple nodes in a larger area and they can communicate among themselves, transmit the data doing relay chains, or mesh networks in order to get the relevant information to the surface.

Is there open architecture so a customer like the U.S. Coast Guard could use systems they already have?

We have implemented the JANUS acoustic standards, which was developed by NATO, the CMRE Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation. And this has already been implemented in our modems. So it's a feature that we can deliver out commercially. We also are participants in the SWiG—Subsea Wireless Group—acoustic standard. They are part of the oil and gas industry...they have already developed a standard based on JANUS, but they are working on the next-generation standards to increase the bandwidth available and so on. So these standards will also be supported by our modem so that we can interact with any other modems that support basically the two available standards at the moment. Moving forward we will always be supporting the standards. 

In terms of open architecture, we have some interesting developer options built into our devices. We have a sandbox, this provides a virtual environment to the user, which allows them to run their own applications in our system. With this, they also get lower-level access to some of the modem features including the medium access control and can be used for testing networking features, and networking protocols. 

We also have a SDM—software-defined modem—which allows the users to basically play with any arbitrary waveform. If another company has some waveforms that they use for their own communication purposes, and they prefer to use that, they can use our modem as hardware.

Are you working with the U.S. military yet?

We have sold some products—in particular the modems so far; they are developing some projects. So hopefully we'll hear from them soon if their experimentation is successful.

What are your plans for the rest of this year?

Very important is the launch of the quatrain autonomous vehicle with the first project pilot customers, where we will be testing the capabilities basically to the limit. 

We are participating in the REPMUS exercise in Portugal in September with NATO to test different scenarios with them, in which we will also be testing and presenting the interoperability of all the components into one combined and comprehensive system that is also able to provide the data in the formats that is needed for the mission control by NATO. So this will be happening in September, and we hope that it will be very successful and will lead to new ideas and further development projects for us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.