ONR tests the latest in underwater drone technology

The Pax River demonstrations showed off what autonomous and remotely controlled UUVs can do in finding and neutralizing underwater mines.

ONR underwater mines illustration

Underwater mines, like those depicted in the 21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare document, were a key focus of the Pax River demonstrations.


The Navy, which has big plans for underwater drones, continued to develop its future fleet recently with two weeks of demonstrations at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

Hundreds of participants from six countries demonstrated and tested 40 unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), operating autonomously or by remote, performing tasks such a locating and neutralizing mines to mapping a ship’s hull, according to an Office of Naval Research release.

One focus of the Pax River technology demonstrations, held during the second half of September, was mine countermeasures, known as MCM. In one test, UUVs from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States worked together with a manned U.K. surface vehicle to search for mines. Also tested—on several different platforms—were sensors that can detect mines beneath the ocean sediment. Meanwhile, robotic arms built with 3D printing inspected ships’ hull for attached explosives, then managed to neutralize them.

“This is the cutting edge,” Dr. Walter Jones, ONR’s executive director, said of the demonstrations, which not only help improve the technologies but also promotes cooperation among U.S. and coalition forces.

“The MCM program—with vital contributions from partner commands and our international allies—is making great leaps in developing and fielding autonomous, unmanned systems,” said Dr. Jason Stack, program officer and lead for ONR’s Mine Warfare program. “MCM and [explosive ordnance disposal] represent some of the dull, dirty and truly dangerous jobs performed every day by our sailors and Marines. These emerging technologies will assist these men and women by making their jobs faster and safer.”

For all the progress the military and industry have made with UUVs, the Navy knows it’s just getting started. At a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in August, Navy officials described plans for a vast undersea network of unmanned systems, which Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Mathias Winter compared to the Interstate Highway System.

“Undersea dominance – that is an inherently Department of Navy domain. And we are just scratching the surface in some of the capabilities,” Winter said. “Thousands of miles of logistical networks to allow large scale deployment of UUVs, allowing them to communicate, engage, resupply … those technologies are focused around the same technologies that support our directed energy, our unmanned systems and our electric weapons.”

The fleet of UUVs would range from the small hull-inspectors to large unmanned submarines. To get there, the Navy and its partners will have to develop technologies such as the sense-and-avoid ability that also is being developed for unmanned aircraft, and reliable underwater communications and navigation, as well as the capabilities that were demonstrated at Pax River.

In addition to Canada and the U.K., the demonstration also included uniformed and civilian participants from Australia, New Zealand and Germany.

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