In 2015, the Royal Navy released its concept of the surface warship of 2050. Now the RN is casting its crystal ball beyond 2050 by asking a team of young engineers from UKNEST to develop concepts for future British submarines. With designs that mimic sea animals, the manned and unmanned concept undersea vessels are intended to handle a variety of tasks in a future world experiencing intense competition between nations for ocean resources.

Today's submarines may have become much more sophisticated in the past 40 years, but the basic design, construction, and missions of attack and ballistic missile submarines hasn't changed much. However, the 21st century is likely to be very different from the days of the Cold War, with increasing competition over undersea territory and resources as emerging regional powers flex their muscles and aquaculture, mining, and industry move away from the coasts and into the deep oceans.

Since this scenario would bring new military challenges, the Royal Navy tasked UKNEST, a forum founded in 2005 to promote the engineering, science and technology interests of UK Naval Defence, to come up with some blue-sky concepts to explore how new technology can address new threats and protect British assets and freedom of navigation. Taking nature as their inspiration, the graduate and apprentice engineers came up with ideas that melded bleeding-edge technology with simplified complex systems to produce more flexible and cheaper vessels.

The Nautilus 100 mothership

The first and keystone concept is the Nautilus 1000 mothership. A cross between a whale and a manta ray, the Nautilus is conceived as a command and control submarine that not only acts as an information hub, but is also a weapons carrier.

Thanks to advanced autonomous systems and "neuro-interfacing" that allows control by thought, the submarine only needs a crew of about 20. In a further biomimetic touch, steering and depth control would be by means of flexible wingtips that can alter their shape like a living fish.

The 3D-printed acrylic hull would be bonded to super-strong alloys to give it enough strength to withstand depths of over 1,000 m (3,300 ft) while providing more speed and stealth. For added stealth, the Nautilus has a skin of anechoic, nanometer-thin scales that are bonded with a piezoelectric material that allows them to be realigned to reduce drag (and therefore noise), as well as absorb incoming sonar pings.

For power, the Nautilus uses hybrid algae-electric propulsion in cruise mode, with a large-scale tunnel drive operating on the same principle as Dyson bladeless fans that force through water like a smooth jet. Where more speed is needed, Casimir-effect force batteries that use an advanced quantum effect to store energy would provide large amounts of power in short bursts.

These speed bursts are enhanced by the ability of the Nautilus to encapsulate itself in a super-cavitating air bubble created by lasers on the leading edge of the submarine that boil the water ahead of it while outlets stabilize and direct the flow over the hull. The result is that the Nautilus can hit speeds of up to 150 knots (173 mi, 278 km/h).

The Nautilus's advanced multispectral, low-power active and passive sensors are molded into the hull itself. In addition, there is a recovery bay for docking with underwater stations as well as releasing and recovering drones and decoys.

The Eel

The Eel is an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) that would act as the main sensors and secondary weapons carriers for the Nautilus. These drones would be capably of complete autonomy and are launched from weapon bays on the top of the submarine. As the name suggests, the Eel is based on the fishes of the same name, but the similarity is more than just a moniker. The Eel has a sinuous body that moves with an eel-like sine wave propulsion motion, which the designers say would allows it to disguise itself as a marine animal to fool enemy sensors.

Like some of today's experimental robots, the Eel is designed to operate in swarms connected by blue-green lasers for communications to form a self-meshing underwater network for secure command and control over hundreds of miles. The job of the Eels is to listen for residual sounds of electromagnetic disturbances that help to detect enemy assets and to help the swarm's artificial intelligence to assess battleground situations.

Micro UUVs

The Eels would carry a number of micro-drones that are 3D printed from cold saltwater-soluble polymers, similar to the ones used to make washing machine liquitabs. Like the Eels, they operate in swarms and are designed for reconnaissance. In addition, these micro UUVs can free up regular naval forces by forming defensive screens around British undersea assets or acting as escorts for intruding foreign vessels to herd them back to international waters.

But the party piece of the micro UUVs is that they can be programmed to dissolve at a set time. This not only allows then to be deployed on one-way missions into hostile territory without the danger of being captured, but they also become adhesive when they start to dissolve, so they can be used to block water uptakes and intakes to disable ships.

Flying Fish

The Nautilus would equipped with torpedoes for defense, but its main armament are its Flying Fish drones. These are an adaptable weapons system for engaging with surface ships, submarines, and land targets. Like the Eel, the name is descriptive in that the Flying Fish mimics its namesake. Its wings also double as fins and it has a combination of microturbines and plasma batteries for propulsion.

This design would allow the Flying Fish to change in a flash from flying to swimming and let it stay just above the sea surface or just below. This is an area of huge noise and turbulence that makes it hard to lock onto the Flying Fish, which can dive when it detects radar or fly when it detects active sonar.

For its sting, the Flying Fish is modular, with a choice of payloads that include conventional explosives, cluster warheads, shockwave emitters, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.

"The Royal Navy's future success rests on developing the skills and expertise that will keep us one step ahead of the competition," says Captain Sharon Malkin, the Royal Navy's head of Innovation. "That's why the Royal Navy has joined with our partners to unveil Nautilus 100. These concepts demonstrate that the UK has the creative foresight to consider the future underwater world, what it might look like, and what role the Royal Navy might play. Most importantly, we want to help inspire the next generation of British scientists and engineers to be bold in their ambitions."

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