Mine countermeasures is undergoing an operational and technological revolution. Fully automated robotic systems and unmanned vehicles are changing deployment doctrines and making MCM more accessible than ever.
Already acknowledged leaders in mine warfare, the French Navy and its contractors are pioneering the development of a new generation of fully automated robotic solutions. The prime aim is to keep personnel clear of the danger zone. To this end, unmanned vehicles are being designed to detect, classify, locate, identify, and then neutralise underwater threats.
Between 2009 and 2015, France undertook the Espadon programme to test a large unmanned surface vehicle (USV) and two types of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) developed by the ECA Group. The mother USV trailed a towed synthetic aperture sonar (T-SAS) developed by Thales. To search vast areas for potential threats, the first AUV, an ECA type A27, was equipped with the Thales Samdis side-scan sonar. The A27 can dive to 300 metres and has an endurance of more than 30 hours. The second AUV was a type A18-T equipped with a high-resolution sonar and four cameras to identify each threat discovered by the A27.
A18-T (© : ECA GROUP)
Espadon demonstrated the feasibility of mine countermeasures using a mother USV to deploy an AUV. This success paves the way for the eventual replacement of French and British minehunters. For now, the next step is the Franco-British Maritime MCM programme launched in 2015. The main MMCM contractors are Thales, ECA and BAE Systems. Following the completion of prototype definition studies, each country will build a complete prototype system with a view to qualification in 2019. The basic concept calls for the deployment from the shore or a ship of a mother USV which, in turn, deploys an AUV for mine detection and classification. The USV will be based on the Halcyon developed by British contractor ASV, while the AUV will be an ECA type A27. The USV will also deploy a T-SAS or a clearance ROV developed by Saab.
After supplying an A27 AUV for the Espadon programme — and without waiting for the MMCM programme — ECA decided to develop its own concept, quickly winning international customers. Between 2016 and 2018, ECA will deliver three standoff MCM systems designed for autonomous operation from a remote workstation. The system comprises a 9m aluminium-hull Inspector Mk2 USV equipped with a Towsca towed side-scan sonar which can operate at depths from 10 to 100 metres and returns high-resolution imagery that is used to detect seabed objects. To search for mines and IEDs in shallow water (2 to 10 metres), the USV uses an Edgetech 6205 side-scan sonar on a retractable arm on its bow.
Sonar data are transmitted to the workstation via a high-speed two-way radio link (range: 10km) enabling the operator to see the seafloor in real time from a safe standoff distance.
Each USV deploys two new-generation ECA SeaScan ROVs equipped for mine identification (endurance: 3 hours) that operate within a radius of 1000m of the mother craft. The ROVs are deployed by a remotely-controlled launch & recovery system. The USV radio link is used to control the ROVs and relay real-time sonar and video data enabling the operator to guide the vehicles to their targets and identify them from a safe standoff distance.
SeaScan (© : ECA GROUP)
For mine neutralisation, the Inspector Mk2 can deploy two KSter-C mine killer ROVs, each carrying a shaped charge that explodes on contact with the mine.
The ECA Group consults with partner shipyards to ensure that their mother vessels are compatible with its ROVs. ECA is also promoting the IT180, an unmanned aerial vehicle used by the French Navy for surveillance and intelligence gathering. In this context, the IT180 can increase the standoff distance between the mother USV and its ROVs. The 22kg IT180 has a double rotor and can fly in winds up to 50kts. Launched by a mother ship and maintained at an altitude between 100 and 150m, it provides an effective radio relay.
K-STER (© : ECA GROUP)
IT 180 (© : ECA GROUP)