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DARPA project would plant devices on sea floor for later launch

May. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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An artist's illustration of the Upward Falling Payload project, in which materials in long-term undersea storage could be launched when needed to counter enemy threats. (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

The Navy is looking for a way to be everywhere, all the time.

Technologists with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are working on a project that would place sensors on the bottom of the deep ocean — about 4 kilometers deep. Like spies under deep cover, they could hide for years until called into action. A trigger can send their payloads to the surface.

DARPA is billing the technology as a cost-cutter, as it saves the Navy the time and expense of deploying ships and subs and builds on unmanned technology advances.

Andy Coon, DARPA’s program manager for the project, said in a DARPA release he needed to show that sending sensors from the sea floor to monitor large areas is effective.

“The trick is to show how these systems offer lower-cost alternatives to traditional approaches, and that they scale well to large open-ocean areas,” Coon said.

DARPA would not make Coon available for an interview, but the project, known as Upward Falling Payload, could house anything from waterborne or airborne cameras, sensors, decoys, network nodes, beacons or jammers.

The agency is assessing the right delivery vehicles — stationary, mobile or allowed to drift on the ocean bed — but once triggered by Navy operators, the probes would float to the surface to be deployed.

Norman Friedman, an expert in naval warfare with the U.S. Naval Institute, said it was an intriguing concept that faces an ocean of hurdles.

“Stuff goes bad over time,” he said. “It’s not at all clear that there are any technologies that could sit on the bottom of the ocean for years at a time, that won’t break or get lost — because you know things move on the sea floor, there are currents.”

Friedman said this is an idea that had been tried and dismissed during the Cold War, when the U.S. looked at placing ballistic missiles on the sea bed to trigger them if needed. But the risk of another country finding the missile and stealing it was too great.

“So whatever they put down there, it better not be lethal because if another country develops deep-dive technology it could end up going missing,” he said.

DARPA says it is specifically seeking nonlethal technology and is excited about the possibilities. In its 2015 budget request, the agency is seeking a 60 percent increase in funding for the program that would boost the project’s budget to $19 million.

The project is just exiting the first phase of development; in the second, the agency will be working on the triggering mechanism that signals the probe to release from the sea floor.

“We’re also looking for the communications technologies for these nodes. As long as you can command the nodes remotely and quickly, and don’t have to send a ship out to launch it, you’re in good shape,” Coon said, according to the release. “Some Phase 1 approaches were more exotic than others, but we were pleased by the range of challenging options.”

However, Friedman said that phase could be a big stumbling block because, as the recent struggle to locate the downed Malaysian airliner shows, communicating beacons and underwater sensors can be tricky.

“It’s a neat idea,” he said. “But there are a lot of questions about how effective it could be.”

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