Naval operations: Thales revolutionises the field
In the last two decades, states have become increasingly reliant on shipping for international trade. This process is rich in economic promise, but poses equally serious threats and challenges that naval actors are having to face. In the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the seas around China and Japan, a race for naval weaponry is under way between emerging powers. This not only raises the prospect of tensions between the states concerned. It is also likely, in the medium term, to hinder the actions of western navies.
Trafficking (of drugs, weapons, human beings, etc.) is a major challenge given the potential for destabilisation it brings.
Piracy has become less of a problem in some areas but remains a significant obstacle in others, such as in the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Guinea.
Lastly, terrorists have the capacity to hit a series of targets (ports, naval bases, etc.) from land or sea. In narrow bodies of water like the Suez Canal and the Mandeb Strait, or off hostile coasts, it is possible to strike civil vessels and warships using simple, inexpensive devices, from suicide speedboats packed with explosives to anti-tank or sea-to-sea missiles, not to mention mines, which are still a present danger. Commercial maritime shipping transports nearly 90% of the world’s petroleum and manufactured products, and is a target for these threats; an attack could seriously disrupt supplies to many countries.
The AUSS: the platform of the future
In this context, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR ) missions are crucial.
At the Euronaval trade show, Thales is unveiling the AUSS (Autonomous Underwater & Surface System), a tool that its designers believe will be as revolutionary as the modern smartphone has been compared to first generation GSM phones.
It is a new ISR drone concept, capable of operating on and beneath the surface. The programme began with an observation: AUV (Autonomous Underwater Systems) of all types have their operational limitations when it comes to intelligence and surveillance missions. While very well suited to mine warfare operations, they are not suited to some types of underwater mission, which we will come back to, or for surface ISR or naval counter-terrorism missions.
Current AUV are incapable of conducting many underwater missions requiring them to be able to remain stationary, or to operate where currents are strong. They are limited in their ability to manoeuvre in order to enter or leave port, and are only capable of conducting surface ISR missions, by deploying a mast equipped with sensors, if they have a weight of several tonnes (around five in most cases), thus ensuring their stability in a roll. From this starting point, Thales teams decided to adopt a systems approach. Looking at current and foreseeable operational needs, they noted which areas AUV were lacking in in order to meet these needs.
Thales teams decided to adopt a systems approach
After R&D in cooperation with numerous mid-sized companies and SME in the Angers and Brest regions, in the space of three years Thales developed a craft capable of conducting the full range of defence and security ISR missions: the AUSS. Given its technical characteristics, which give it completely unprecedented operational flexibility and range at sea, it is able to meet needs for both non-AIS traffic control and for intelligence in hostile waters in the least permissive theatres of operations.
The AUSS, a scale model of which will be on display at Euronaval, looks at first sight like an extremely simple vehicle. At 5.50 metres in length, 21 inches in diameter, and a weight of 600 kilograms, this aileron-free “tube” with twin propellers resembles a special model of torpedo. But it is precisely this simplicity, this extremely meticulous design developed by Thales in partnership with firms specialising in this discipline, that, combined with a dozen technological innovations, gives this drone great multi-role potential.
While the AUV currently on the market cannot leave a port unaccompanied while also conducting all required individual manoeuvres, the AUSS has demonstrated, in the pool and at sea, its ability to turn back on itself horizontally, vertically, or at a 30° angle, in an 8 metre by 8 metre cube, without ever touching the sides of the pool. Launched by a crane, it can not only reach the sea alone from a dock, but also perform patrol activities in open water.
The AUSS, unlike current naval drones, does not need to maintain a certain speed in the water to keep moving
Still in development, the system has yet to demonstrate its full potential. Numerous innovations remain confidential.
But it can already travel distances of several dozen nautical miles, or even more, and carry out missions lasting two to three weeks, or perhaps longer than a month. And the AUSS’s potential range might enable it, in the medium term, to perform missions covering distances of several hundred, or over a thousand, nautical miles. How? Using highly innovative energy management. The AUSS, unlike current naval drones, does not need to maintain a certain speed in the water to keep moving. It can sit on the sea bed and wait, shutting down almost all its power-consuming functions. With complete buoyancy control, it can remain in position for several hours or even days in this configuration, cutting down hugely on the power it uses, before resuming its mission when operational needs demand it. This type of performance is currently utterly inconceivable for any type of AUV whatsoever. This is because other AUV must be constantly on the move, or else they would return to the surface immediately.
What is more the AUSS, able to sail both on the surface and beneath it while avoiding obstacles, can also remain in one position, completely stationary, and raise the tip of its mast three metres above the water; the mast’s total stability is ensured by the weight of the platform when turned in a vertical position. The mast, which can carry a number of types of sensor depending on operational need (electromagnetic intelligence, optronics, etc.), has a detection capability with a range of several nautical miles and operates as if it were based on a buoy. A “buoy” that can, at the command of the shore-based pilot, dive unobtrusively, vertically, and then move to another observation post.
Immeasurable operational potential
In the light of these characteristics alone, it is already easy to understand the host of functions an AUSS could fulfil in a civil context.
While current AUV require a launch platform and crew to reach open water before the drone is deployed, the AUSS will not require a launch platform and will be able to set off on a mission alone, considerably reducing operating costs. This capability in itself is a major asset. But the system’s range and extended operating time also open up a vast array of operational possibilities: the AUSS will be able to perform offshore traffic surveillance missions, taking up a fixed position in a strategic body of water for as long as necessary, before moving if needed, all with a range far superior to that of an aerial drone system.
It will also be able to perform offshore infrastructure surveillance missions at much lower costs than the actors concerned are prepared to pay today: a subsea oil pipeline surveillance vessel is operated by a crew of around twenty, generally costing $1,500 each per day, or $30,000 in total before fuel, food, etc. For oil companies keen to control their costs now that crude costs $50 a barrel, the AUSS, a solution capable of conducting operations of the same type by itself, is an obvious choice giving it huge potential for winning contracts.
Given its range, manoeuvrability and discretion, it is the ideal tool for conducting ISR missions in hostile waters
And the AUSS’s ability to perform surface surveillance missions, such as the surveillance of subsea installations, of course has many applications in the defence segment.
Given its range, manoeuvrability and discretion, it is the ideal tool for conducting ISR missions in hostile waters. Deployed from land but also potentially by a frigate or a submarine for long-distance projection, it enables its support platform to remain in international waters while conducting an intelligence operation inside an adversary’s perimeter. Capable of stopping in less than ten metres and evading an obstacle in every direction, the AUSS can, when faced with an anti-submarine net, stop, calculate the space it needs to get around it, and then operate. This has major implications for an actor’s ability to penetrate strategic sites. It can also circle a submerged or surface object, observing it, and then remain in a fixed observation position, opening up huge prospects for the reconnaissance of submerged or surface objects.
Its manoeuvrability is analogous to that of a helicopter, while current AUV can be compared to aeroplanes, meaning that the AUSS can also play an essential role in a context that is both mobile and static, such as securing an area around a vital warship. A platform surrounded by several AUSS operating remotely can thus detect threats that its on-board resources alone cannot and, importantly, considerably enhance its ASM capabilities. Equipped with a Thales underwater imaging payload, the AUSS could in the future carry, for example, active sonar.
The AUSS is a hugely innovative tool but one comparable, for now, with a concept car, the concrete applications of which have yet to be defined; by 2020, it will offer very attractive operational prospects, massively increasing the effectiveness of fleets that deploy it. It has everything it takes to win export contracts. As well as Thales, this will benefit the whole excellence cluster forming around the project, which already includes 19 SMEs based in Brittany and the Angers and Paris regions. Because the AUSS is not just a system platform. It is also a programme, driven by a cluster bringing together the best French talents, which will use Euronaval as a showcase.