The Royal Navy recently announced its ambitious vision for the future underwater domain, stating that it must leverage cutting edge technologies from industry, academia and the RN innovation ecosystem to accelerate and de-risk future capabilities. Here Thomas Rooney, Technical Sales Manager and Jonathan Davies, Chief Scientist, at Sonardyne consider the options.
The RN’s ATLANTIS Hybrid Underwater Capability concept uses a semi-autonomous mothership submarine operating in tandem with remote, autonomous and uncrewed platforms. It reflects similar development programmes and UUV platforms expected to operate at the absolute depths of oceans and to carry additional payloads. The benefits of the Royal Navy’s concept would be sustainability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness as more vessels could be delivered at a lower cost.
But in order to deliver this, it is becoming evident that allied forces need to see a clear pathway from concept to reality to counter ever-evolving subsea threats, and one of the biggest challenges here remains communication and data sharing between platforms. But, though employing a detailed knowledge of the subsea operating environment and by applying the ability to detect, classify and neutralise threats, navies and industry can partner to best inform the development of the technology roadmap, ensuring forces can conduct their operations successfully and with minimal threat to platforms and personnel.
Overcoming communication challenges
To bring ambitious autonomy plans into fruition, a mindset change is needed to understand command control communication infrastructure and capabilities, and to overcome the expectation that capabilities from above water can be taken underwater. Traditionally, underwater sensors have experienced challenges with sharing data with those on land as both use different wireless signals that only work in their respective mediums. Namely, radio signals that travel through air die very rapidly in water, and acoustic signals, or sonar, sent by underwater devices mostly reflect off the surface without breaking through.
Raw data generated by underwater platform sensors will need to be filtered through autonomous data management (edge processes) or by manual processes to reduce it to core information that can be transmitted quickly using acoustic signals, that a commander can understand and interpret. Through this process, and through each extraction and processing step, it strays further from the raw data, and therefore the reliability of the information that comes back and how it can be verified is a significant challenge.
In addressing this issue, operators need a secure and reliable protocol stack, but it is also important to bear in mind there’s a difference between resilience and security. Security is about having confidentiality, integrity and availability, whereas resilience speaks to integrity and availability but doesn’t necessarily provide that confidentiality.
The most effective way for allied naval underwater assets to communicate on any secure, sophisticated level is for there to be open standards. There has already been a shift in the defence landscape towards open waveforms and open architectures to ensure equipment and emerging standards meet future needs. We recognise the need for capabilities — IoT and connectivity, for instance — to quickly share information to make future visions a reality.
Open standards and interoperability
To enable secure, reliable communication and data sharing between platforms, navies are increasingly recognising the importance of open standards that would then allow the use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components, as even simple differences to something like a power-supply voltage can be a barrier to interoperability between mission-critical applications. By adopting open standards, navies can meet their capability and operational requirements through open access to the best providers and technology, thereby optimising their defence systems.
There have been a couple of attempts at underwater acoustic communications standards in previous decades such as Proteus, and NATO’s JANUS. However, the missing ingredient with JANUS and other standards has been ensuring the communication channel is secure enough that non-friendly navies cannot decode it, without affecting its performance.
The benefits of open standards for defence
Phorcys, the newly developed open standard for secure acoustic communications which is funded and owned by the UK MoD’s Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), is a high-integrity secure-by-design acoustic waveform, produced through combined industry and academic collaboration to enable navies to communicate and interoperate with AUVs. It is multiband and multimode, and as a result it operates across multiple size, weight and power applications. Phorcys will have enhanced, integrated situational awareness capabilities, and importantly, it addresses one of the critical deal-breakers from previous standards: security.
In looking to achieve secure underwater communications, Sonardyne has been leading a technical programme to develop a high-integrity secure waveform for acoustic communications, set up in response to a Dstl requirement. The project looked to develop the Phorcys unclassified open standard to facilitate NCSC accreditable secure acoustic communications that will enable navies to collaborate and interoperate, using software-defined cryptographic keys. The programme has achieved secure transmissions and communications for underwater platforms.
Being able to challenge and recognise friend from foe will help distinguish an allied AUV from that of a non-friendly nation. In addition, Phorcys waveforms are capable of higher data rates than previous standards, offering flexibility for platforms that require different data rates, transmission durations and frequency bands.
Historically, the procurement and adoption process of the defence sector is slow. But open standards will help simplify procurement because vendor systems that comply with the standard can be used together, and there’s still space for companies to compete in the development of applications to deliver capabilities. With COTS technology being made available for the industry, leaders need to assess what is in the sector now, how it will develop and plan accordingly around it by working with the technology providers to implement it promptly.