Asymmetric Dialogue

Are robot swarms the future of destroying sea mines?

A sea mine is a promise of tragedy in the future. Built for the immediate demands of a naval conflict, deployed for some once-pressing strategic end, and now left in place for decades, sea mines are an enduring risk. Clearing the sea from the dangerous refuse of the past can be a high-stakes proposition. Why not, then, let robots do it?

This important work is present done by humans, who often have to physically place detonation charges on the mines they find. Some day, autonomous robots could perform the same task with less risk of loss of life. (Alfred A. Coffield/Navy)

In August 2018, a loose mine was spotted off the coast of Washington state, and then detonated without harm (or secondary explosion, indicating that it was an inert training mine). This detonation work is typically done by human divers, and while the mine spotted in Washington was luckily inert, there are plenty of sea lanes where live weapons of dead wars persist. In the Baltic, for example, NATO estimates there remain 80,000 sea mines, a number that’s been unchanged for nearly a decade.

On Dec. 21, Thales and Aquabotix announced a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on the research and design of autonomous robot minesweepers. Formally described as a “rapidly deployable Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Rapid Environment Assessment (REA) and Military Hydrographic autonomous system mission solution,” the robots the companies hope to collaborate on will be an alternative to sending humans immediately into the danger of aquatic unexploded ordnance. Acronyms aside, this robot has a much simpler, clearer title: the Swarm Diver, named because it will do just that.

As described, a sort of mothership surface drone or underwater drone will release swarms of smaller autonomous underwater robots to scout, identify and ultimately neutralize discovered mines in littoral waters. Autonomy is key here, as communicating underwater is difficult and communicating with above-water assets from underwater especially tricky without an intermediary.

Should the Swarm Diver project work as intended, swarms of autonomous robots could be the long-awaited answer to the enduring threat posed by autonomous explosives, new and old alike.