DARPA Wants an Autonomous Drone That Can Do Dirty Work on the Ocean Floor

The Pentagon’s wizards of high tech are looking for a self-guiding submarine.

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DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for someone to develop a new autonomous underwater drone that can manipulate objects on the seabed floor, all without input from a human operator. The so-called "Angler" drone could be useful for all sorts of tasks, from tapping underwater communications cables to salvaging missile debris.

A on the U.S. government site Federal Business Opportunities posted by DARPA says the agency is looking for “an autonomous undersea robot capable of transiting large distances and physically manipulating objects on the seabed with no communications or human intervention.”

Per the solicitation:

This robotic system, herein referred to simply as “Angler”, will operate autonomously and without external communication, to navigate, search, localize, and physically manipulate objects on or near the seabed, using an onboard sensor suite to self-localize, avoid obstacles, manage interaction with the seabed environment, and fulfill manipulation mission objectives. In addition to these navigation and positioning challenges, the robot will be able to perform these search and manipulation objectives autonomously, even in dark, turbulent, and semi-opaque sea conditions.

A lot of factors make autonomous underwater systems tricky to put into practice. The Angler drone will travel closer to the seafloor than aerial drones travel to the ground, making navigation much more hazardous. Water clarity can range from glass-clear to extremely turbid, with visibility sometimes in the inches. GPS and other navigational aids are often severely degraded or unavailable underwater.

The U.S. military has a long history of working on the seafloor, including tapping Soviet communications cables during the Cold War, raising sunken submarines, recovering crashed aircraft, placing sea mines, and other tasks—many sensitive or even secret. A drone like Angler could be sent to the ocean floor to pick up missile debris off the coast of North Korea, giving intelligence analysts a glimpse into the design, construction, and materials used in the missile. A drone could even help locate and identify or salvage crashed airplanes and ships.

DARPA anticipates multiple contractors will want to compete for the Angler program, and will select more than one to compete in a drone-off, with one design eventually selected to fulfill the program.

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