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Bio-mimicry for Underwater Domain Awareness

Dr Vijay Sakhuja


The U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs office, in a press statement, has stated that USS Connecticut (SSN 22) a Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine collided with an “unknown object” while submerged in the waters of the Asia Pacific region. At least 11 crew members sustained injuries that “ranged from moderate to minor, including scrapes and bruises”.


It is not surprising that the location of the incident has not been disclosed keeping in mind the strategic nature of nuclear submarine operations and the concomitant secrecy and purpose attached to such deployments. However, by some accounts the incident took place in the South China Sea and the submarine limped back to Guam for repairs and investigations into the incident.


There are numerous issues related to the incident that range from safety and security of nuclear platforms, operational constraints and in particular about knowledge of the underwater domain which remains underexplored due to lack of technology and investments made by States.


At another level, the incident attracted reactions from China and the Chinese Foreign Ministry not only conveyed “serious concern” over the incident and urged the US to “clarify in detail the situation of the accident, including the location, the intention of the sailing, details of the accident, such as what exactly it collided with, whether it caused a nuclear leak, and whether it damaged the local marine environment,”


Our knowledge of the oceans, particularly of the underwater domain, is limited.


Be that as it may, what does emerge from the incident is that our knowledge of the oceans, particularly of the underwater domain, is limited. Although the US Navy may have the most comprehensive charts and knowledge of the underwater domain for submarine operations, yet the incident did take place.


Underwater Data


The last few years have seen a resurgence in the recognition of the importance of seafloor mapping with a strong emphasis on collection of data. It involves a number of unmanned underwater technologies and platforms that use multi-beam transmissions to collect higher resolution data. For instance, the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project plan to survey the ocean floor across the globe by 2030. The Project commenced in 2017 and that time, “only six percent of the seabed was mapped to a modern standard. The GEBCO digital map, which is freely available for all, now covers more than 20% of the seabed but we still have a monumental task ahead, one that can only be achieved through global cooperation”. The enormity of the Project can be gauged from the fact that “a single survey ship would take about 350 years to adequately map most of the seabed deeper than 200 meters, and it would take another 620 years to map the shallower areas”.


Similarly, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE challenge aims to discover the Mysteries of the Deep Sea and would accelerate innovation for the rapid and unmanned exploration of the seafloor. It also aims to “advance deep-sea technologies for autonomous, fast, high-resolution ocean exploration” and “accelerate innovation for the rapid and unmanned exploration of the uncharted deep sea; catalyze markets in deep ocean exploration and discovery, sustainable resource development, and protection; illuminate the most mysterious part of the planet; and ignite the public imagination”.


Biomemetics

Humankind has mimicked nature, both life-form and non-living, and learnt to jump, crawl, roll, swim and more recently fly. Apparently, Leonardo da Vinci designed something like an aircraft to enable humans to fly by flapping large artificial wings. He was obviously inspired by bats, birds, and insects; but it was finally the Wright brothers who built and fly a motor-operated airplane. Scientists and technology experts are now exploring the science of biomimetic or bio-mimicry, or bio-inspiration which can be broken down to read as ‘bio for life’ and ‘mimesis for imitation’. It involves mimicking life-form and building innovative objects/machines and looking at the nature in fine detail, making an engineering design of the object, exploiting it to solve/create solutions for human problems.


It is inherently interdisciplinary and is based on “principles from engineering, chemistry and biology” that are creatively put to use for the “synthesis of materials, synthetic systems or machines that have functions that mimic biological processes”. As far as materials used for bio-mimicry are concerned, these can be natural or synthetic, but should be able to naturally interact with any portion or section of a biological system. The goal is to create products through replication of life on earth i.e., on land or under the sea.


Militaries are inspired by nature and have used domesticated animals, wild animals, birds, fish and mammals to perform a number of activities such as delivery of messages (pigeon), mine detection (dolphins), bats (to carry incendiary bombs) and dogs (detecting explosives), etc. They have also explored the possibility of imitating life-form to build tools of warfare.


Militaries are inspired by nature and have used domesticated animals, wild animals, birds, fish and mammals to perform a number of activities such as delivery of messages (pigeon), mine detection (dolphins), bats (to carry incendiary bombs) and dogs (detecting explosives), etc. Besides they have also explored the possibility of imitating life-form to build tools of warfare. For instance, a submarine derives its hull-form from Sunfish. It is the heaviest bony fish with ‘exact same body density’ as seawater which gives it ‘neutral buoyancy’ at any depth. Furthermore, it has no ‘gas-filled swim bladder’ that helps it to ‘withstand volume changes from pressure in deep water’.


Similarly, sound waves are used for communication purposes underwater for detecting underwater objects/obstructions/enemy submarine. This is inspired by dolphins that use sound waves to communicate with other members of the family. Likewise, bats make sounds, listen to echoes, and then see outlines of objects which is the principle used in depth measuring derives which use sound energy underwater.

Underwater Droning


Drones are well known for their operations in the air and locust swarms are being mimicked for ‘swarm droning’. Swarm drones can be easily launched and controlled from remote and inaccessible locations. Their role may not be limited to non-kinetic missions such as ‘eyes in the sky’; instead, they can do far more combat damage. Their ability to ‘self-organize in sub-swarms’ could be a game-changer in naval operations, and coordinated as well as distributed attacks can potentially saturate defenses, breaching an adversary’s A2/AD strategy.


Drones are also being explored for underwater use. In this context, technology experts are now inspired by ‘remoras’, a small fish also called ‘sharksucker or suckerfish’. This creature attaches itself to a big fish and free rides along and “when it’s time for them to go do something, they do and then come back”. This would help to launch and recover UUVs as convenient and would be useful for carrying out operations over a larger area in the oceans. Similarly, swarm of underwater drones could mimic an octopus’s arms and attach to enemy ships to carry out attack. These can also be modified to undertake ISR operations.


Similarly, a Chinese technology company, Boya Gongdao Robot Technology, put on display a shark-like, military Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) at the iOceans China 2019 event in Sanya, China. The company claims that Robo-Shark has ‘stealth features’ and ‘high underwater speed and large payload capacity’ and can be deployed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. According to an underwater technology expert, ‘fish-tail propulsion’ offers a number of advantages such as higher efficiency (up to 80%), improved battery life due to low power consumption and the outer casing which is made of sound-absorbing material reduces noise signature adding to its stealth. Another Chinese Biomimetics underwater drone (wingspan of 0.8 meters and top speed of 1 knot) is based on the Manta Ray fish. It has been designed by the School of Marine Science and Technology at the PRC Northwestern Polytechnical University.


It would be fair to argue that 'Biomemetic robots’ will be game changers and would shape the nature of future warfare.


This is perhaps the beginning of the future of underwater warfare. The future plans envisage developing ‘biobots’ by replicating marine species and plants life. It would be fair to argue that 'Biomemetic robots’ will be game changers and would shape the nature of future warfare. Also, there is enormous interest in the defense industry towards those who are already developing Biomemetic robots, devices and tools for applications in the civil domain.


About Author

Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.