Military engineers have taken another step in the march toward robotic warfare. During recent tests, a manned Navy attack submarine launched an unmanned undersea vehicle from one of its torpedo tubes. The Boeing-built AN/BLQ-11 robotic sub then returned to the mother sub, which hauled it aboard using a 60-foot-long robotic arm.

It was the first demonstration of a robot recovery by a submerged sub while under way, according to the Navy and Boeing. During similar tests in January 2006, the robotic arm docked with the sub but did not successfully retrieve it.

Unmanned vehicles are designed to do work that is too dirty, dangerous or dull for humans. For example, robot subs could be used to detect and detonate enemy mines. In the recent tests, the robotic sub performed “shadow submarine” maneuvers in which it operated alongside the larger sub.

As its name indicates, the AN/BLQ-11 is 11 inches in diameter. That makes it a perfect fit for a torpedo tube. The robotic arm used to grab the mini-sub and stuff it back into its launch tube is deployed from a second torpedo tube. The same technology may be used for larger-diameter robot subs in the future.—Dawn Stover

Image: Boeing Company