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Yellow submarine: Navy hopes new drone revolutionizes how war is fought

The banana-hued, boxcar-sized drone was on display at the Navy’s Sea-Air-Space conference this week in National Harbor, Md. It can stay underwater for 30 days – and launch weapons.

Military officials are hoping that the Navy’s new yellow submarine – the latest high-tech advance in underwater drones – is going to revolutionize the way the Pentagon fights wars all over the world.

Developing these drones, however, means unlocking some tricky linchpins in unmanned technology in an effort to teach military machines autonomous behavior, which entails delving into what officials call “memory mapping” and other particulars of how people’s brains work.

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For this reason, it’s important to understand “not just algorithms,” says Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, “but also the humanistic side – understanding neural networks and how we make decisions.”

Standing in an expo booth next to the banana-hued, boxcar-sized unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) at the Navy’s Sea-Air-Space conference this week, Rear Admiral Winter, who heads up the Office of Naval Research, oversees some 1,100 PhDs working for the service’s high-tech arm.

“I am continuously amazed with the underwater breakthrough technologies,” he says, glancing at a small “swarming” drone displayed just above his head at the expo in National Harbor, Md.

These breakthroughs include exploring not just decisionmaking technology, but also “off the charts, revolutionary” leaps forward in battery life and power storage to allow such crafts to one day operate for “months and years” underwater, Winter adds.

Beneath the world’s oceans is a rich and tough-to-navigate landscape, with mountains, peaks and valleys, shifting sands, blowing wind, wildlife, and “other man-made objects,” he says. “How do we make sure it doesn’t bump into something?”

At the moment the yellow submarine, whose Navy name is the Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV), can stay underwater for 30 days. “We are pursuing weeks, months, years,” Winter says. “I’ll stop short of decades.”

When it’s ready, it can move things – “leaflets, pizzas,” he adds – and launch weapons.

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These underwater drones could also one day conceivably carry smaller unmanned flying counterparts to release on command, such as the Navy’s other touted technological breakthrough, the LOCUST – or Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology – a collection of mini-drones that move in unison.

The Navy’s aim is to show that it can use swarms of them to attack and overwhelm enemy forces – starting with 10 and moving up to dozens.

The tiny drones look like flying microphones with wings made of magic wands. They are “a science breakthrough,” Winter says.

In designing LOCUST, Navy researchers were inspired by swarms of termites. “Think about when you come out of a house and termites are swarming,” he says. “You don’t just move through gladly: You start to maneuver.”

This fact offers both “defensive and offensive opportunities.”

The Navy released an illustrated video showing a handful of LOCUST drones swooping above what appears to be a small desert town, then moving in for an attack.

Studying swarms of termites was inspirational for another reason, says Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va.

“Without communicating, they sense the environment change around them,” he says, “and they instinctively know which way to go.”