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Uncrewed Technology to Defeat Deadly Sea Mines

UK and France join forces to test autonomous minehunters

The UK and France are collaborating on a project to develop and test uncrewed technology for detecting and destroying sea mines. The project, called Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM), aims to replace the traditional ship-based mine countermeasures (MCM) with a system of autonomous and remote-controlled vehicles that can operate in challenging environments.

The MMCM system consists of several components, including an unmanned surface vessel (USV), a towed synthetic aperture sonar (TSAS), an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and a mine identification and disposal system (MIDS). The USV acts as a command and control platform, while the TSAS and AUV scan the seabed for mines. The ROV and MIDS then identify and neutralize the threats.

The MMCM project is led by Thales, a French multinational company that specializes in aerospace, defense, and security. Thales has partnered with several other companies, such as BAE Systems, Saab, ECA Group, and L3Harris, to deliver the system. The project is funded by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the French Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA).

The MMCM system has been undergoing trials since 2016, and is expected to reach its final evaluation in 2023. The trials involve testing the system’s performance, reliability, interoperability, and safety in various scenarios and conditions. The trials also aim to demonstrate the benefits of uncrewed technology for MCM operations, such as reducing the risk to human operators, increasing the speed and accuracy of detection and disposal, and lowering the cost and complexity of maintenance.

Uncrewed Technology to Defeat Deadly Sea Mines

Uncrewed technology offers a smarter way to defeat sea mines

Sea mines are one of the most dangerous threats to naval forces and commercial shipping. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), there are more than 250,000 sea mines in the world’s oceans, some dating back to World War I and II. Sea mines can cause severe damage to ships and submarines, as well as disrupt maritime trade and security.

Traditionally, MCM operations have relied on manned vessels that use mechanical or magnetic devices to sweep or cut the cables of moored mines, or divers that manually place explosives on bottom mines. However, these methods are slow, risky, and costly. They also expose the operators to harsh environmental conditions, such as high temperatures, salinity, currents, waves, and visibility.

Uncrewed technology offers a smarter way to defeat sea mines by using sensors, algorithms, and artificial intelligence to autonomously detect, classify, identify, and dispose of mines. Uncrewed technology can also operate in greater depths and distances than manned vessels or divers, increasing the operational range and flexibility of MCM missions. Moreover, uncrewed technology can reduce the human footprint of MCM operations by using fewer personnel and resources.

Uncrewed technology is not only beneficial for MCM operations, but also for other maritime applications, such as hydrographic surveying, environmental monitoring, underwater archaeology, and marine research. Uncrewed technology can provide valuable data and insights that can enhance the understanding and management of the marine environment.

Challenges and opportunities for uncrewed technology

Despite the advantages of uncrewed technology for MCM operations, there are also some challenges and limitations that need to be addressed. One of the main challenges is ensuring the communication and coordination between different uncrewed vehicles and platforms. Uncrewed vehicles rely on wireless signals or acoustic modems to transmit data and commands, but these can be affected by interference, noise, or jamming. Therefore, uncrewed vehicles need to have robust communication protocols and backup systems that can ensure their reliability and safety.

Another challenge is ensuring the legal and ethical aspects of uncrewed technology. Uncrewed vehicles operate in a complex legal environment that involves national sovereignty, international law, maritime law, environmental law, and human rights law. Uncrewed vehicles also raise ethical questions about their accountability, responsibility, transparency, and trustworthiness. Therefore, uncrewed vehicles need to have clear rules of engagement and governance that can ensure their compliance with legal and ethical standards.

Despite these challenges, uncrewed technology also offers many opportunities for innovation and collaboration. Uncrewed technology can foster the development of new technologies and capabilities that can improve the performance and efficiency of MCM operations. Uncrewed technology can also foster the collaboration between different stakeholders, such as governments, industries, academia, civil society, and international organizations. Uncrewed technology can create a common platform for sharing knowledge, expertise, best practices, and lessons learned.

Uncrewed technology is transforming the way MCM operations are conducted. By using autonomous and remote-controlled vehicles that can operate in challenging environments, uncrewed technology can provide a smarter way to defeat sea mines. Uncrewed technology can also enhance other maritime applications that can benefit from the data and insights provided by uncrewed vehicles. Uncrewed technology is not without challenges and limitations, but it also offers many opportunities for innovation and collaboration.

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