Public design competitions accelerate open innovation for autonomous underwater vehicles



Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) have become a technology of growing interest for maritime security and surveillance applications. With the need to rapidly improve the functionality, performance, energy efficiency and size of their fleets, governments around the world regularly seek public contributions to research to accelerate the development of AUVs.

the fast growing AUV market goes beyond military applications such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), mine countermeasures (MCM) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). AUVs can also offer collaboration with manned vehicles.

A conceptual graphic of unmanned vehicles in underwater surveillance applications. Image used courtesy of Terracciano, Bazzarello, Caiti, A. et al. Marine robots for underwater surveillance. Curr Robot Rep 1, 159-167 (2020). [CC BY 4.0]

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been making open calls for innovators to join bespoke competitions for years, including the recent Subterranean Challenge, which has spurred the development of autonomous vehicles for underground environments, and the SHRIMP Competition, which challenged designers. to create micro-robotics.

Similarly, the British Royal Navy has called on teams to develop technologies to advance the creation of AUVs.

Existing capabilities of AUV technology

While AUVs can accomplish a wide range of missions, they must do so in a harsh environment with limited human intervention. The conventional electromagnetic waves used for the communication of autonomous land vehicles (VA) are not suitable in aquatic environments. Meanwhile, a high-density power source is needed with enough power to drive sensors on the high seas.

  • Communication and network technology: As water distorts signals, communication methods such as GPS, rover, WiFi radar, and LiDAR are ineffective for AUVs. Acoustics is the most suitable solution; however, this poses the challenges of signal delivery, relatively low bandwidth, and power consumption.
  • Precision navigation technology: Long Baseline Navigation (LBL) is commonly used for three-dimensional acoustic navigation of AUVs on the high seas. Boeing Orca AUV is equipped with forward-looking sonar and autonomous obstacle avoidance algorithms.
  • Power Solutions: Battery life can dramatically decrease when AUVs have to operate in deep water, as thrusters consume the most power. Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are used because they have a slower rate of degradation and less probability of leakage than Li-ion batteries. The new generation of Kongsberg Maritime AUV Endurance HUGIN has submarine load capacities fueled by different temperatures at different ocean depths.
  • Acoustic sensors: AUVs can carry a variety of sensors that help them navigate autonomously, map ocean features, and locate targets quickly and accurately. Acoustic sensors include Side Scan Sonar (SSS), Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS), Echosounders, Underwater Profiler (SBP). Meanwhile, acoustic cameras offer an alternative solution and magnetic sensors such as magnetometers, optical cameras and laser scanners.
  • Artificial intelligence: By pushing AUVs to gain independence, navigate complex situations and solve problems autonomously, artificial intelligence should be considered. AI is used to advance autonomous path planning, decision making and cue generation, payload controllers, and target detection classification and discovery.

Render of the XLUUV / Manta / S201. Image used courtesy of MSubs

Why governments ask for a public contribution

Governments around the world recognize the growing need for underwater operational awareness and payload delivery. Future capabilities in this area are essential to ensure that missions can be performed reliably. However, while there have been many improvements in AUV capabilities, there is a significant lack of options in the underwater battlespace.

British government Unscrewed underwater vehicle test bench competition, part of the last stage of the Development of the Royal Navy submarine capabilities competition, aims to test innovative sensors and payloads on an unequipped extra-large underwater vehicle (XLUUV). The aim is to help the Royal Navy innovate for the next generation of submarine capabilities, fully understand the operational limitations of AUV systems and increase the number of ready-to-deliver platforms available.

By calling on the general public to contribute to AUV’s research and development (R&D), governments are giving innovators in industry and academia the opportunity to develop and test whatever technology they have that can is aligned with future capabilities. With careful prototyping, experimentation and demonstration, governments have a chance to unlock and incorporate advanced capabilities into AUV development.

Soliciting technological innovations from institutions in an open forum allows governments and organizations to tap into external sources and diversify R&D investments. However, creating an open forum has both advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages and disadvantages of open and closed innovation models. Image used courtesy of Nunes and Abreu. [CC BY 4.0]

Whether used for exploration, research, military or defense, the advanced technologies used in autonomous submarines will continue to be developed. The continued commitment of governments to spur the development of AUVs is sure to spur innovation, as will competition in the underwater arena, with countries such as the US Navy with a substantial budget to create a more distributed fleet architecture.

Open innovation will certainly allow governments to harness diversity and increase knowledge. However, an open forum is a trade-off between the likelihood of a breakthrough and the likelihood of failure.



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