UK And France Are Building Robots To Fight Underwater Explosives

Underwater unmanned allies

The last thing an admiral wants to do is send his own sailors face-to-face with explosives. A new project, jointly funded by the defense ministries of the United Kingdom and France, wants to create a team of robots that can face down and defuse underwater mines, all without risking a human life in the process. The project has cleared the design stage, and now engineers will begin building and testing the underwater minesweepers.

One of the best ways to keep a hostile navy from approaching a sensitive area is to fill the ocean with underwater mines. Used at war for at least 150 years, mines pose a risk not just to warships during conflicts but also to any ships passing nearby afterwards. In the past 60 years, underwater mines have damaged or destroyed more American warships than anything else. Defusing, dismantling, or otherwise disabling these mines is an ideal job for robots, and an area that’s seen considerable investment in the past decade.

The new system, made by French defense giant Thales working with the U.K.’s BAE, combines the goal of stopping underwater explosives with the dream of commanding a team of robots. A unmanned surface vehicle (or roboat, if you prefer) will use sonar to detect minefields and then deploy its own remotely operated vehicles. The autonomous underwater vehicles, or robot submarines, will use sophisticated sonar to better identify the underwater mines. Then they’ll “neutralize” the mines–it’s not clear whether that means ramming into the mines and blowing themselves up in the process, or perhaps attaching a second explosive to the mine to make it explode. The entire robot team will deployed from a naval vessel, and will communicate with a human-operated control station through a high-capacity data connection, though Thales wants the system to have a high degree of autonomy.

Autonomous war robots can certainly sound scary, but it’s a lot better when they’re defusing human-placed weapons, rather than causing any new harm of their own.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.