DARPA proposes flexible new unmanned vehicle network


September 12, 2013

The Hydra System is composed of several parts: the delivery system, shelters that may rest midway underwater, or sit on the bottom; and small unmanned vehicles that can be deployed at a moments notice (Image: DARPA)

The Hydra System is composed of several parts: the delivery system, shelters that may rest midway underwater, or sit on the bottom; and small unmanned vehicles that can be deployed at a moments notice (Image: DARPA)

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The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has floated a fascinating new unmanned systems project that would see undersea motherships launching smaller submarines and flying vehicles to conduct pop-up surveillance on pirates, terrorists and hijackers. The Hydra Project, named after the Greek legend of the multi-headed snake that grew two new heads whenever one was cut off, looks to provide low cost response to quickly changing situations on or near the water.

Piracy was once relegated to Saturday movie matinees and dusty old books about wooden ships and iron men. Today it’s a hard fact of life that near places like Somalia and Nigeria, the hijacking of ocean-going ships, crew, and cargoes is a regular business, with almost daily attacks. The money that piracy brings in finances terrorist networks and contributes to destabilizing governments. The amounts involved run into the billions of dollars of losses for corporations and countries.

The United States needs a flexible, rapid, and stealthy response that puts sensors – eyes and ears – right where they are needed with a minimum of delay. Those sensors may need to wait, silent and unobserved, for weeks or months before they are needed. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing the Hydra to meet this need. The idea is that under the sea are hidden a number of shelters that house unmanned submarines and aircraft. These undersea garages and hangers provide power and communications to several different types of sensor carrying vehicles. When the need arises, these small vehicles are released to begin their missions. The aircraft rise to the surface, open a protective shell and fly off into the sky. The mini-submarines cruise out to look for trouble.

“The climate of budget austerity runs up against an uncertain security environment that includes natural disasters, piracy, ungoverned states and the proliferation of sophisticated defense technologies,” says Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager. “An unmanned technology infrastructure staged below the oceans’ surface could relieve some of that resource strain and expand military capabilities in this increasingly challenging space.”

The Hydra program has several components that will need to be developed. First, the shelters housing the platforms need to be placed in the right location in order to be useful. They might be delivered by boat, by plane, or even by submarine. The idea of having a covert asset is that you don’t want anyone seeing you put it in place. The means must be developed to carry the shelters, get them to the correct place and hide them down in the water to wait, unseen until needed.

The next element is the shelter itself. This structure, which may float, sink, or sit on the bottom of the sea, must last for extended periods of time while providing power to the unmanned vehicle it contains and have a communications link back to the military so that commands can be sent and received. DARPA sees this as a modular enclosure that could be made bigger or smaller based on need, but would be constructed out of a common set of components. One interesting problem for the shelter is how it might generate power to keep its batteries charged – could it use wave action, or solar panels on a floating buoy?

The third element is the miniature vehicles themselves. DARPA is looking for an air vehicle and an undersea vehicle – or class of vehicles-- that could be adapted to a variety of roles. The Air vehicle would need to be launched from the undersea shelter, float to the surface, configure itself for flight, and then take off from the water. The information DARPA has released does not mention retrieving the air vehicles, so they may be intended to be disposable.

The undersea vehicles would be able to cruise around and detect various activities. The two mentioned in the DARPA press release were following or detecting shipping, and detecting and destroying or disabling sea mines. The unmanned submarines would presumably have an easier time returning to their shelters that the flying robots.

DARPA is also allocating money in its budget for concept studies and simulations. Since no system like this has existed before, the military will need to see how this type of asset fits into its force structure. What could this be used for? How can it be best employed? How many unmanned airplanes and submarines do you need to cover an area? These questions could be answered by testing ideas and concepts in sophisticated war games fought in computer simulations.

DARPA held an industry day on August 5 at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab for interested companies, researchers, and universities to listen to briefings and ask questions about the project. The next step is for these companies to dream up approaches to solving this particular difficult problem and preset proposals to DARPA. These proposals are due October 22. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Back in 1969, Gerry Anderson, a British TV producer, was trying to follow up his successful Thunderbirds program with a live action science fiction drama. He dreamed up Skydiver, a submarine that launches airplanes, as a defense against alien invaders for a TV program called UFO. It seems that in 2013, DARPA is looking to finally create his imaginary craft to take part in a battle against terrestrial pirates and hijackers.

Source: DARPA

About the Author
Francis X Govers III Francis Govers is the designer of over 20 land, sea, air and space vehicles and teaches robotics and the design of self-driving cars. He spent 10 years at NASA, helped design the International Space Station, participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, and managed the only Zeppelin operating in the US. As a commercial pilot, writer, artist, musician, engineer, race car nut and designer, Francis has a serious addiction to building things that frequently gets him into trouble. All articles by Francis X Govers III

Or simply adapt some cargo ships to escort carriers and sail them continuously up and down the Somali\Nigerian coast while flying armed drones off the deck such as the reaper. Pirates tend to drop their weapons over the side rather than be caught or sunk, eventually they run out of funds.


The problem is that piracy is not the problem it is a symptom. The problem is warlords generally make for bad governments.


Yup, "The Terminator" type world is coming closer to reality. Thanks DARPA, for making it real.... not.


Not true! Remember Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrier?

This mother-ship carried a swarm of small inflatable outboard-motor boats (the Zodiacs) which, after the mother-ship had approached the Russian whale-ships up to a safe out-of-sight distance, were launched and then, heading swiftly towards the whale-ship, successfully interposed themselves between the harpooners and the whales.

This strategy based both on surprise and great numbers could not operate on land because roads are unidimensional traffic supports making it impossible for great numbers of vehicles to intervene simultaneously at the same place -- whereas it worked well on the two-dimensional support represented by the sea surface.

I let you imagine the dramatically increased efficiency of this strategy when transposed into the third dimension, i.e. the airspace -- e.g. with a mother-plane carrying a fleet of ultra-light tilt rotor aircraft...

But, do get me right! Unlike most American inventors, students, engineers, scientists, and all the other technology freaks, my hope to ramp up intervention capability is for the civil society to do so -- not for the military!!!


Stupid idea to drop these things all over the place. Just put them on the ships that need protection. Let the ships be the bait. No need to search for pirates, let them come to you. Then when the pirates come the military can fight back using remotely controlled attack robots.

Douglas Knapp

In my above comment the following citation from the article is missing as an introduction:

"Since no system like this has existed before..."

Not true!... this time makes sense -- my apologies.

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