Tag Archives: autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV)

Who Owns the Real Information System

In January 2022, the head of the UK’s armed forces has warned that Russia submarine activity is threatening underwater cables that are crucial to communication systems around the world. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said undersea cables that transmit internet data are ‘the world’s real information system,’ and added that any attempt to damage then could be considered an act of war.

The internet seems like a post- physical environment where things like viral posts, virtual goods and metaverse concerts just sort of happen. But creating that illusion requires a truly gargantuan—and quickly-growing—web of physical connections. Fiber-optic cable, which carries 95% of the world’s international internet traffic, links up pretty much all of the world’s data centers…

Where those fiber-optic connections link up countries across the oceans, they consist almost entirely of cables running underwater—some 1.3 million kilometers (or more than 800,000 miles) of bundled glass threads that make up the actual, physical international internet. And until recently, the overwhelming majority of the undersea fiber-optic cable being installed was controlled and used by telecommunications companies and governments. Today, that’s no longer the case.

In less than a decade, four tech giants— Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook ) and Amazon —have become by far the dominant users of undersea-cable capacity. Before 2012, the share of the world’s undersea fiber-optic capacity being used by those companies was less than 10%. Today, that figure is about 66%.  In the next three years, they are on track to become primary financiers and owners of the web of undersea internet cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

By 2024, the four are projected to collectively have an ownership stake in more than 30 long-distance undersea cables, each up to thousands of miles long, connecting every continent on the globe save Antarctica. In 2010, these companies had an ownership stake in only one such cable—the Unity cable partly owned by Google, connecting Japan and the U.S. Traditional telecom companies have responded with suspicion and even hostility to tech companies’ increasingly rapacious demand for the world’s bandwidth. Industry analysts have raised concerns about whether we want the world’s most powerful providers of internet services and marketplaces to also own the infrastructure on which they are all delivered. This concern is understandable. Imagine if Amazon owned the roads on which it delivers packages.

But the involvement of these companies in the cable-laying industry also has driven down the cost of transmitting data across oceans for everyone, even their competitors….Undersea cables can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. Installing and maintaining them requires a small fleet of ships, from surveying vessels to specialized cable-laying ships that deploy all manner of rugged undersea technology to bury cables beneath the seabed. At times they must lay the relatively fragile cable—at some points as thin as a garden hose—at depths of up to 4 miles.

All of this must be done while maintaining the right amount of tension in the cables, and avoiding hazards as varied as undersea mountains, oil-and-gas pipelines, high-voltage transmission lines for offshore wind farms, and even shipwrecks and unexploded bombs…In the past, trans-oceanic cable-laying often required the resources of governments and their national telecom companies. That’s all but pocket change to today’s tech titans. Combined, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta and Amazon poured more than $90 billion into capital expenditures in 2020 alone…

Most of these Big Tech-funded cables are collaborations among rivals. The Marea cable, for example, which stretches approximately 4,100 miles between Virginia Beach in the U.S. and Bilbao, Spain, was completed in 2017 and is partly owned by Microsoft, Meta and Telxius, a subsidiary of Telefónica, the Spanish telecom.  Sharing bandwidth among competitors helps ensure that each company has capacity on more cables, redundancy that is essential for keeping the world’s internet humming when a cable is severed or damaged. That happens around 200 times a year, according to the International Cable Protection Committee, a nonprofit group. 

There is an exception to big tech companies collaborating with rivals on the underwater infrastructure of the internet. Google, alone among big tech companies, is already the sole owner of three different undersea cables

Excerpts from Christopher Mims, Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft Weave a Fiber-Optic Web of Power, WSJ, Jan. 15, 2022

Smart Weapons Who Make Many Mistakes: AI in War

Autonomous weapon systems rely on artificial intelligence (AI), which in turn relies on data collected from those systems’ surroundings. When these data are good—plentiful, reliable and similar to the data on which the system’s algorithm was trained—AI can excel. But in many circumstances data are incomplete, ambiguous or overwhelming. Consider the difference between radiology, in which algorithms outperform human beings in analysing x-ray images, and self-driving cars, which still struggle to make sense of a cacophonous stream of disparate inputs from the outside world. On the battlefield, that problem is multiplied.

“Conflict environments are harsh, dynamic and adversarial,” says UNDIR. Dust, smoke and vibration can obscure or damage the cameras, radars and other sensors that capture data in the first place. Even a speck of dust on a sensor might, in a particular light, mislead an algorithm into classifying a civilian object as a military one, says Arthur Holland Michel, the report’s author. Moreover, enemies constantly attempt to fool those sensors through camouflage, concealment and trickery. Pedestrians have no reason to bamboozle self-driving cars, whereas soldiers work hard to blend into foliage. And a mixture of civilian and military objects—evident on the ground in Gaza in recent weeks—could produce a flood of confusing data.

The biggest problem is that algorithms trained on limited data samples would encounter a much wider range of inputs in a war zone. In the same way that recognition software trained largely on white faces struggles to recognise black ones, an autonomous weapon fed with examples of Russian military uniforms will be less reliable against Chinese ones. 

Despite these limitations, the technology is already trickling onto the battlefield. In its war with Armenia last year, Azerbaijan unleashed Israeli-made loitering munitions theoretically capable of choosing their own targets. Ziyan, a Chinese company, boasts that its Blowfish a3, a gun-toting helicopter drone, “autonomously performs…complex combat missions” including “targeted precision strikes”. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that many of today’s remote-controlled weapons could be turned into autonomous ones with little more than a software upgrade or a change of doctrine….

On May 12th, 2021, the ICRD published a new and nuanced position on the matter, recommending new rules to regulate autonomous weapons, including a prohibition on those that are “unpredictable”, and also a blanket ban on any such weapon that has human beings as its targets. These things will be debated in December 2021 at the five-yearly review conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, originally established in 1980 to ban landmines and other “inhumane” arms. Government experts will meet thrice over the summer and autumn, under un auspices, to lay the groundwork. 

Yet powerful states remain wary of ceding an advantage to rivals. In March, 2021 a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence established by America’s Congress predicted that autonomous weapons would eventually be “capable of levels of performance, speed and discrimination that exceed human capabilities”. A worldwide prohibition on their development and use would be “neither feasible nor currently in the interests of the United States,” it concluded—in part, it argued, because Russia and China would probably cheat. 

Excerpt from Autonomous weapons: The fog of war may confound weapons that think for themselves, Economist, May 29, 2021

Under-Water Data Centers: Reliable, Cool and Cheap

Earlier this year a ship hauled a large, barnacle-covered cylinder sporting a Microsoft logo from the seas off the Orkney islands. Inside were a dozen server racks, of the sort found in data-centres around the world. Sunk in 2018, and connected to the shore by cable, the computers had spent the past couple of years humming away, part of an experiment into the feasibility of building data-centres underwater.

On September 14th, 2020 Microsoft revealed some results. The aquatic data-centre suffered equipment failures at just one-eighth the rate of those built on land. Being inaccessible to humans, the firm could fill it with nitrogen instead of air, cutting down corrosion. The lack of human visitors also meant none of the bumping and jostling that can cause faults on land.

Microsoft hopes some of the lessons can be applied to existing, land-based data-centers. In the longer term, though, it notes that building underwater offers advantages beyond just reliability. Immersion in seawater helps with cooling, a big expense on land. Data-centres work best when placed close to customers. Land in New York or London is expensive, but nearby sea-floor is cheap. More than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles (192km) of the sea. Ben Cutler, the engineer in charge of the project, says submarine data-centres could be co-located with offshore wind farms as “anchor” customers. The cylinder fits in a standard shipping container, so could be deployed to remote places like islands, or even disaster areas to support relief efforts.

Excerpts from Cloud computing: Davy Jones’s data-center, Economist, Sept. 19, 2020

Black Operations are Getting Blacker: US Military

Heterogeneous Collaborative Unmanned Systems (HCUS), as these drones will be known, would be dropped off by either a manned submarine or one of the navy’s big new Orca robot submersibles.

Logo for Orca Submarine by Lockheed Martin

They could be delivered individually, but will more often be part of a collective system called an encapsulated payload. Such a system will then release small underwater vehicles able to identify ships and submarines by their acoustic signatures, and also aerial drones similar to the BlackWing reconnaissance drones already flown from certain naval vessels.


Once the initial intelligence these drones collect has been analysed, a payload’s operators will be in a position to relay further orders. They could, for example, send aerial drones ashore to drop off solar-powered ground sensors at specified points. These sensors, typically disguised as rocks, will send back the data they collect via drones of the sort that dropped them off. Some will have cameras or microphones, others seismometers which detect the vibrations of ground vehicles, while others still intercept radio traffic or Wi-Fi.

Lockheed Martin Ground Sensor Disguised as Rock

HCUS will also be capable of what are described as “limited offensive effects”. Small drones like BlackWing can be fitted with warheads powerful enough to destroy an SUV or a pickup truck. Such drones are already used to assassinate the leaders of enemy forces. They might be deployed against fuel and ammunition stores, too.

Unmanned systems such as HCUS thus promise greatly to expand the scope of submarine-based spying and special operations. Drones are cheap, expendable and can be deployed with no risk of loss of personnel. They are also “deniable”. Even when a spy drone is captured it is hard to prove where it came from. Teams of robot spies and saboteurs launched from submarines, both manned and unmanned, could thus become an important feature of the black-ops of 21st-century warfare.

Excerpts from Submarine-launched drone platoons will soon be emerging from the sea: Clandestine Warfare, Economist, June 22, 2019

Undersea Drones: Military

Currently, manipulation operations on the seabed are conducted by Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) tethered to a manned surface platform and tele-operated by a human pilot. Exclusive use of ROVs, tethered to manned ships and their operators, severely limits the potential utility of robots in the marine domain, due to the limitations of ROV tether length and the impracticality of wireless communications at the bandwidths necessary to tele-operate an underwater vehicle at such distances and depths. To address these limitations, the Angler program will develop and demonstrate an underwater robotic system capable of physically manipulating objects on the sea floor for long-duration missions in restricted environments, while deprived of both GPS and human intervention

The Angler program seeks to migrate advancements from terrestrial and space-based robotics, terrestrial autonomous manipulation, and underwater sensing technologies into the realm of undersea manipulation, with specific focus on long-distance, seabed-based missions. Specifically, the program aims to discover innovative autonomous robotic solutions capable of navigating unstructured ocean depths, surveying expansive underwater regions, and physically manipulating manmade objects of interest.

Excerpts DARPA Angle Program Nov. 2018

The Sea Hunter Drone

The Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) is developing an unmanned vessel optimized to robustly track quiet diesel electric submarines. … capable of missions spanning thousands of kilometers of range and months of endurance under a sparse remote supervisory control model. This includes…autonomous interactions with an intelligent adversary.
Excerpts from Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV))


Artificial Reefs

Reefs improvised from junk often do not work well. Corals struggle to colonise some metals, and cars and domestic appliances mostly disintegrate in less than a decade. Some organisms do not take to paints, enamels, plastics or rubber. Precious little sea life has attached itself to the 2m or so tyres sunk in the early 1970s to create a reef off Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tyres occasionally break free, smash into coral on natural reefs and wash ashore.

Yet building artificial reefs that are attractive to marine life can pay dividends. Some of the reefs built in Japanese waters support a biomass of fish that is 20 times greater than similarly sized natural reefs, says Shinya Otake, a marine biologist at Fukui Prefectural University. He expects further gains from a decision by the Japanese government to build new reefs in deep water where they will be bathed in nutrients carried in plankton-rich seawater welling up from below.

The potential bounty was confirmed in a recent study by Occidental College in Los Angeles. Over five to 15 years researchers surveyed marine life in the vicinity of 16 oil and gas rigs off the Californian coast. These were compared with seven natural rocky reefs. The researchers found that the weight of fish supported by each square metre of sea floor was 27 times higher for the rigs. Although much of this increase comes from the rigs providing fish with the equivalent of skyscraper-style living, it suggests that leaving some rigs in place when production ceases might benefit the environment.

Making reefs with hollow concrete modules has been especially successful. Called reef balls, these structures are pierced with holes and range in height up to 2.5 metres. The design is promoted by the Reef Ball Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Athens, Georgia. Reef balls can be positioned to make the most of photosynthesis and for plankton to drift slowly across their curved inner surface. This improves the nourishment of plants and creatures setting up home within. A hole in the top reduces the chance of them being moved about by storm currents.

Concrete used to make a reef ball is mixed with microsilica, a silicon-dioxide powder, to strengthen the material and lower its acidity level to be more organism-friendly. The balls are cast from fibreglass moulds, which are typically sprayed with a sugary solution before the concrete is poured. This creates tiny hollows which provide a foothold for larval corals. Over 500,000 reef balls have been placed in the waters of more than 60 countries, and each one should last for some 500 years, says the foundation.

The value of artificial reefs has been boosted by the spread of GPS devices and sophisticated sonars on boats. This allows fishermen to locate the subsea structures precisely. It is necessary to be directly above the reef to reel in more fish, says David Walter of Walter Marine, an Alabama company that used to sink vehicles for fishermen but now places pyramid-shaped, hurricane-resistant steel, concrete and limestone structures to create artificial reefs. These constructions can cost nearly $2,000, but many fishermen consider them to be a good investment, especially to catch red snapper.

Using underwater drones for long-term studies of reefs and their associated marine life is also helping improve designs. Sensors can be installed on reefs to monitor boat traffic and activities such as fishing and scuba diving.

Perhaps the most innovative way to build a reef involves anchoring a frame made with steel reinforcing bars to the sea floor and zapping it continuously it with electricity. This causes minerals dissolved in seawater to crystallise on the metal, thickening the structure by several centimetres a year. Biorock, as the resulting material has been trademarked, becomes stronger than concrete but costs less to make. More than 400 “electrified” reefs, many the size of a small garage, have been built this way. Three-quarters of them are in the ocean around Indonesia.

Excerpts, Artificial reefs: Watery dwellings, Economist, Dec.6, 2014,  Technology Quarterly,  at 4

SeaWeb Live: drones, mules & gliders

UUVs [unmanned underwater vehicles]  will probably play a bigger role as roving wireless nodes that increase the reach of underwater networks. The latest “glider” UUVs consume very little battery power…. Already, gliders serving as “mules” are descending to sensors in deep water where they acoustically collect information. They then ascend to the surface and send the data via radio, says David Kelly, chief executive of Bluefin Robotics, which provides UUVs to half a dozen navies.

The US Navy has ordered several gliders to form underwater mobile networks. With no engine noise, a stealthy “swarm” of gliders could monitor submarines and ships entering a strait, for example, surfacing to transmit their findings. Floating gateway nodes, dropped from the air, allow messages to be sent to submerged devices via low-frequency acoustic signals. This scheme, known as Deep Siren and developed by Raytheon, an American defence contractor, has been tested by the British and American navies.

“Underwater networking will put an end to the ‘data starvation’ experienced by submarines”.  The combination of acoustic signalling and UUVs, which can deliver data physically, will put an end to the “data starvation” experienced by submarines, as America’s submarine command described it in a report last year. Often incommunicado, subs have been condemned to “lone wolf” roles, says Xavier Itard, head of submarine products at DCNS, a French shipbuilder. His firm is developing a funnel-shaped torpedo-tube opening that would make it easier for a UUV to dock with a submarine. Being able to send messages quickly via acoustic networks would enable submarines to take on more tactical roles—inserting special forces when needed to a nearby battlefield, say, or supporting ground operations by launching cruise missiles from the depths.

The Soviet-built ELF radio system remains a “backbone” of Russia’s submarine communications, according to a Norwegian expert. But in a clear vote of confidence in newer technologies, America shut down its own system in 2004. Thanks to steady progress in undersea networks, what was once a technological marvel was, a US Navy statement explained, “no longer necessary”. Whether via sound waves, laser pulses, optical fibres or undersea drones, there are now better ways to deliver data underwater.

Excerpt , Underwater networking: Captain Nemo goes online, Economist Technology Quarterly, Mar. 9, 2013, at 7