If you hunt unexploded sea mines for a living, then you might not mind losing your job to a robot. That seems to be the reasoning of the British and French governments, as they embark on a joint venture to develop a prototype autonomous system for detecting and neutralizing sea mines and UnderWater Improvised Explosive Devices (UWIED).
Mine-hunting is one of the least visible and most vital aspects of naval warfare. Underwater mines have been used in almost every major naval conflict since the Second World War, and mine hunters are a surprisingly large part of the fleets of major powers. Mines range from cheap, simple explosive devices to sophisticated computerized systems equipped with sensors and designed to wait hidden on the sea bed for years until the right target presents itself.
Meanwhile, mine-hunting methods have grown increasingly sophisticated as well, but it costs 10 times as much and it's 10 time slower to remove a mine as to lay it. In an effort to make mine-hunting operations faster, cheaper, and safer, France and Britain are looking into robotic systems that have a high degree of autonomy.
The Organisation for Joint Armaments Cooperation (OCCAR), which facilitates and manages collaborative armament programs between Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, has awarded the Maritime Mine CounterMeasures (MMCM) contract to Thales on behalf of the French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA) and Britain's Defence Equipment and Support organization.
The MMCM contract aims at providing systems to both the French Navy and Royal Navy, along with two years of evaluation testing. It covers the design, manufacturing, and testing of future autonomous, remotely-operated mine countermeasures for the French future mine countermeasures system (SLAM-F) and the British Mine countermeasures and Hydrography Capability (MHC).
When deployed, Thales sees the mine hunters of tomorrow as a fleet of underwater robots, unmanned surface vessels, towed sonars, and remote operated vehicles connected by Iridium satellite links as well as radio, acoustic, and direct cable links that allow the command ship, robots, local operations centers, and Reach Back data centers to remain in close communications.
According to Thales, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) would be geolocated and equipped with the latest-generation synthetic aperture sonar. The system would also use Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar (T-SAS) with very high-resolution multiview imaging, while Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) with autonomous navigation and threat-avoidance sonar worked in conjunction with Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) capable of identifying and neutralizing mines by means of new analysis tools.
The development team is made up of personnel from Thales and BAE Systems, as well as contractors from ASV Ltd, ECA, Wood & Douglas, and SAAB. Thales will develop the Portable Operations Centre (POC), which will use command and control technology from Thales and BAE. Meanwhile, BAE will produce the Mission Management System, managing the command and information systems, the ROVs and the virtual visualization and experimentation suite.
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