Drones on the Wave

środa, 09 lutego 2022

Gavia, Hugin, DriX – the list of unmanned systems used by the Polish Navy is getting longer. Although maritime unmanned systems will never replace ships, still they can increase their potential, and become an important element in the system of international security.

At first sight, it looks inconspicuous: it is over 2-m long, and has a diameter of 40 cm. In order to transport it to an appointed spot, a truck and a boat will do just fine. When lowered down on water surface, it however transforms into a real monster. It moves on the preprogrammed route, scanning thoroughly 120-meter wide stripes of the sea bottom. If needed, it can go down as deep as 200 m, and its recorded images are accurate enough for an operator to decide with greatest probability whether or not there is a mine, unexploded shell or simply a harmless piece of metal, wooden log or a stone. It is called Gavia, and it’s an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). The Polish Navy has been using these type of vehicles for almost eight years. The first Gavias were acquired for the 12th and 13th Mine-Sweeper Squadron of the 8th Coastal Defense Flotilla. Soon after, the Polish Navy was convinced about their effectiveness. In 2015, during the Open Spirit minesweeping operation at the coast of Estonia, Gavia, lowered from the ORP “Mewa” ship, found 111 mines dating back to the period of WWII. It was the best achievement of the ship operating within the NATO mine countermeasure team – a record, which has not been beaten until today. Obviously, the vehicles had their faults. For example, they lacked devices which could scan sea bottom directly beneath them. The problem was however successfully solved. Two years ago, Gavias were complemented with the BlueView MB 2250 module. In addition, with new batteries their working time increased from three and a half to seven hours. Their performance significantly improved. Soon, the army bought another two sets. They will go to “Albatros” and “Mewa,” two MCMVs of Project 258, which will enter Polish service this year. The Polish Navy are acquiring new drones, just as all other naval forces do. “The future belongs to drones,” emphasizes Capt (N) Piotr Sikora, the officer at the Armaments Board in the Naval Inspectorate of the General Command of the Armed Forces.

Steering Underwater

Most of naval drones used by the Polish Navy are underwater vehicles. They search for mines, classify and counter them, and Gavia is barely one of them. In the arsenal of ORP “Kormoran”, which is the first minesweeper of Project 258, there is also an autonomous Hugin 1000MR manufactured by the Norwegian Kongsberg. In size, it is longer than Gavia – as it is 4.5 m long, and at one time it can scan wider area and go down deeper – even down to 1,000 m. It’s also fitted with slightly different systems, such as synthetic aperture sonar (SAS), which records sea bottom images of very high-resolution. The next two Hugins will be exploited by “Albatros” and “Mewa” ships.

Apart from the AUVs, the Polish naval forces are also equipped with the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). These are cable devices connected with their mother units with the subsea umbilical or optic fiber, which the operator uses for direct control. One of them are the Double Eagle Mk III (purchased for ORP “Kormoran”) and Double Eagle Sarov vehicles (for other Project-258 minesweepers) designed by Swedish Saab. The first device can be used by a sonar of alterable depth. It scans through the waters in search of mines concurrently with a ship under-keel sonar. With such solution, a ship crew can scan a wider area in a shorter period of time. Sarov will be used for planting explosives of Toczek type in waters of variable sea currents.

The Polish Navy also uses ROVs of domestic production, such as Morświn designed by the specialists at Gdańsk University of Technology (PG). The mariners use it for identification of found underwater objects, as well as for destroying mines and other dangerous material or unexplosives. Morświn permanently stations onboard ORP “Kormoran.” The list closes with the drones: Ukwiał and Głuptak, built mainly for the purpose of destroying dangerous objects. They do it in many different ways, by planting explosives (Ukwiałs) or by… exploding near designated place (Głuptaks). Both designs were built in Poland. That’s not all – the Polish Navy also has unmanned surface vehicles.

True Revolution

At the beginning of December 2021, to Gdynia straight from France arrived DriX. This device had been ordered by the Hydrographic Office of the Polish Navy (Biuro Hydrograficzne Marynarki Wojennej, BHMW) for the purpose of measuring sea bottom. Collected data will help to create maps for sea navigation. “In our arsenal, we already have an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle of Z-Boat 1800 type, but the purchase of DriX is a true revolution,” said in October Cdr Marcin Banaszak, Chief of the Hydrographic Section in the Hydrographic Support Squadron, which is part of the 3rd Ship Flotilla. This is the unit which carries out on the Baltic Sea all the activities for the BHMW.

DriX is large enough to operate at full sea – independently or in cooperation with a hydrographic ship, and, as specialists admit, its equipment is practically the same as the one of crew vessels. The vehicle, for instance, has a multibeam echosounder for sea depth observation. It also has its own acoustimeter for measuring the speed of sound in the water, which is a key indicator for defining depth.

The device follows pre-defined route, but an operator can take over control any time. The operator follows its activity onboard a hydrographic vessel. The vehicle can still however start its journey to the indicated place on its own. As Capt (N) Piotr Sikora admits, in the surface drones are very much interested… the specialists on mine wars. “They are better than AUVs in one thing: they can send to an operator images in real time. On the other hand, while moving on surface, they become an easy target for enemy, and their mechanisms are more vulnerable to electronic interference,” Capt (N) Sikora enumerates the pros and cons of the system. This way or another, the officer anticipates that in the near future, the Polish countermeasure forces will gain such systems, too. “In the technical modernization plan for the Polish Armed Forces, there is the project called Kijanka. It assumes that unmanned system for mine clearance will be acquired. France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain already work on similar solutions, and soon they will run tests in the Persian Gulf. Until 2024, they will have known first results. We follow all these activities, although about our Kijanka we cannot say much at the moment,” admits Capt (N) Sikora.

Drones are however worth talking about. They will not replace ships, but significantly increase the capabilities of some of them. “With the drones, we’re getting the ships of a brand new type. It’s sufficient to see the serial Kormoran IIs. Referring to tradition classification, we call them minesweepers. In fact, they are much more than that – they are mine countermeasure platforms. Search, classification and neutralization of mines can be done in many different ways, often at long distances, which translates into the safety of the crew,” emphasizes Capt (N) Sikora. However, the expansion of the fleet of drones has also another aspect. Quite soon, drones can become an essential element in international security system.

Element of the System

ORP “Czajka” entered the region of potential mines. At this point, Gavia was lowered to the water to localize threats. Such collected data were sent to EU MOC (Martitime Operation Center). This is barely one of the episodes of international exercises at the coast of Sweden. In August 2021 in the waters of the Hanö Bay, three unmanned air systems, four surface drones and five autonomic underwater vehicles cooperated for several days. There were also several ships, German research boat and a civil aircraft fitted with the radar of the most up-to-date generation. The participants also used information transmitted from the COSMO SkyMed satellite.

The exercise constituted part of international Ocean 2020 project supervised by the European Defense Agency (EDA). It was joined by 43 institutions of different type from 15 countries. The goal of the project was to present the capabilities of unmanned platforms of various types, but also to integrate them with currently used systems for monitoring the situation at sea. All of the above should in the future help to better defend European naval borders and key navigation routes. Exercises at Mediterranean and Baltic seas were culmination point for the project. Poland took part in both of them. Although Gavia operating from ORP “Czajka” belonged to the Portuguese naval forces, still the Polish input in the project was significant, vastly thanks to the activities of the Research and Development Center – Center for Maritime Technology (OBR-CTM) in Gdynia.

The invitation for participation in Ocean 2020 project was sent from the Leonardo concern, which is a leader of the consortium established for the need of the project. Gdynia specialists performed tasks in most of work packages, and they even became a leader of one of them. “We participated in, among other things, designing new solutions for communication systems in order to finally take part in the exercises on the Baltic Sea and test how they do in practice,” explains Marcin Wiśniewski, CEO of the OBR-CTM. “For communication between the ships and command posts our RKP-8100 radios were used,” he adds. The project brought many advantages. For instance, it allowed for solutions that can facilitate servicing unmanned systems, information exchange, operator training, but also building the platform for information exchange between civil institutions, arms industry and the army.

Meantime, the European Union is not the only one to think about the use of unmanned vehicles. In 2018, during the summit in Brussels, the defense ministers of 13 NATO member states initiated the program called NATO MUS (Maritime Unmanned Systems). They declared that they would jointly develop these types of technologies. Why? Because they can turn out to be advantageous for the protection of the most important navigation routes, mine search or even tracking enemy submarines. Poland was one of the signatories of the document, but in time another states would join the project. Today, there are 17 of them. Their representatives would meet every year in Portugal during the REP (Recognizes Environmental Picture) exercises. Poland actively participates in them.

During the last edition, the mariners of the 13th Minesweeper Squadron search on the Atlantic the exercise mines with the use of Gavia. At the same time in the vicinity of Tróia Peninsula drone operators from 15 other NATO members and Australia were carrying out their tasks. The representatives of more than a dozen research and development organizations were also engaged in the project. All of the above – to build the schemes of cooperation as well as the most effective use of maritime unmanned systems.

CPO Mateusz Pasiecznik, Gavia’s operator, takes part in REP exercises from the very beginning. “The first editions were the occasion to learn about the procedures and systems used by individual NATO member states. Last year, an emphasis was put on data processing and analysis. Special team was doing that, whom we provided with all collected information,” he recalls and continues: “Exercises also revealed that having at our disposal the equipment of similar parameters, we can closely cooperate, for instance, with our colleagues from Turkey and Belgium. They are able to process the data from us, and the other way round. This is for sure a valuable lesson.”

A significance of unmanned vehicles will increase with each coming year. Technologies of this type are slowly becoming an important element in common security. “It’s important that Poland also in this field has its share,” summarizes Capt (N) Sikora.

Łukasz Zalesiński

autor zdjęć: arch. 13 Dywizjonu Trałowców