A ‘What is that?’ FishMonster Facebook Video, taken up by HI Sutton on his Covert shores site, shows a curious vehicle spotted off Key West, Florida last week. Virtually the only part above the water is a mast supporting an array of antennas. The vehicle is almost certainly a Wave Glider made by an american company Liquid robotics (now owned by Boeing
The object initially looked like debris – but it moves under its own power. The Wave Glider harnesses natural energy to power missions that last for weeks, months or years without refueling. On the surface, there is a “float” like a 10 foot long surfboard covered with solar cells driving its electronics. This is connected via a clip to an underwater underwater unit 30 feet below. When the waves move the surfboard up and down, the sub-joint turns from top to bottom in forward motion (video demonstrating the action here). The typical speed is only 1.3 knots, but the Wave Glider can continue indefinitely; in 2013, we made an epic of 8000 miles, one year trip across the Pacific.
Although used for scientific research, their long endurance and low profile make Wave Gliders ideal for gathering military intelligence, which is probably why Boeing bought manufacturers Liquid Robotics in 2016. The US Navy has been working with the Wave Gliders for many years, showing interest in their potential for submarine hunting. A Wave Glider can hang around for long periods of time, tow a network of underwater sonars and communicate and communicate to direct planes or ships to a target. A fleet of low-cost wave gliders could travel slowly through an area of interest, covering a much wider area than some expensive manned ships.
The Navy Wave Glider sub-fighter is known as Sensor Hosting Autonomous Research Craft, or SHARC. In 2011, the Navy have started equipping their experimental SHARC gliders with the “Towed Array Integrated“ L ”(TAIL)”, a passive towed acoustic system. It is a set of specialized sensitive hydrophones which take advantage of the silent propulsion of the glider to pick up distant marine engines. (It also gives the acronym SHARC TAIL).
Since then, the Navy’s Wave Glider plans have become more ambitious. Current R&D budget documents Post spending of $ 6 million per year in 2019 and 2020, doubling in 2021 and ending with project completion in 2022. SHARC is now part of a larger effort to use autonomous unmanned systems to collect information. The specific role of SHARC is to:
“Providing the fleet with an asymmetric advantage at low cost for several classified missions. This includes a persistent and autonomous situational awareness and submarine early warning or related underwater activity in support of TASWO / TRAPS [i.e. Anti-Submarine operations] as well as a large area, covert implementation of capabilities to enhance battlefield intelligence (IPB) and strike missions. ” (I underline).
Wave gliders, being acoustically silent and with low visual and radar signature are stealthy compared to surface vessels. Unlike submarines, they continuously transmit data to remote operators.
Current plans call for a fleet of 20 Navy SHARCS to carry out a large-scale demonstration mission in 2021, working together as a cooperative swarm to gather information. Exactly what information is classified. the budget project plan mentions “classified payloads carrying out critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions with simultaneous broadband data links for signal and imagery data.” SHARCS can collect signal information, listen to communications, and detect radar emissions – hence the need for all antennas – but they can do much more.
However, the United States is not alone in having this technology. In 2016, I noted a almost identical copy of the Wave Glider called Fugu tested by the Russian Navy. So, although it is probably one of us, the device seen 15 miles from Key West may well be one of them. It would not be the first times unmanned boats have been used to spy.