MILAN, Italy — Saildrone, a U.S. manufacturer of small and medium unmanned surface vessels, expects an increase in the number of seabed reconnaissance missions its platforms will carry out in 2023 across the Atlantic, Pacific and the Middle East.
The push follows an increasing appetite by governments worldwide to better understand goings-on below the water surface, where crucial energy and communication lines lie that connect countries and continents. Knowledge about the the ocean floors is equally important for military activities related to submarines as well as a relatively new discipline dubbed seabed warfare.
In January 2022, the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) tested for the first time the smallest member of the Saildrone family, the Explorer, a 23-foot-long solar and wind powered system, in the Gulf of Aqaba. The company cooperates extensively with the U.S. Navy, Jenkins said, where generally Saildrone operates the platforms and the service buys the data collected.
Saildrone CEO Richard Jenkins says that much of what his company has done is level the playing field for seabed activities by making mapping at scale become affordable.
“There is no excuse today for a country to not have these capabilities,” he told Defense News in an interview.
Missions in the Atlantic and Pacific will entail the 33-feet long Voyager and 65-feet Surveyor, both powered by diesel or electric engines, Jenkins said. The larger platforms are respectively equipped with the Norbit Winghead i80 and Kongsberg EM 2040 and EM 304 multibeam echo sounders as well as sound velocity profilers for large-scale surveys of shallower waters up to 300m and 7,000m depths.
The Voyager has a mapping speed of five knots on average and an endurance of over three months while the Surveyor has a speed average of six knots and can operate at sea for 179 days collecting data continuously. In contrast, the Saildrone Explorer is equipped with a single-beam Airmar DT800 echo sounder to identify seafloor depth, most commonly used for contour line mapping in areas up to 100m deep. According to the company, it proves especially useful in more remote areas with sparse bathymetric information such as the Arctic, where it can operate up to one year.
All three vehicles are suited for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions above and below the sea surface to provide strategic observations, vehicle tracking, threat detection and communication. The vessels are not subject to American export restrictions and only operate internationally with U.S. partners, Jenkins explained.
Saildrone has no intention to arm any of its platforms, with Jenkins stating that he believes “as soon as you weaponize unmanned systems, they become larger targets for theft.”
The sensor-laden vessels have proven to be a curious target for at least one adversary sea service. In August 2022, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy attempted to capture a Saildrone Explorer operated by the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf, which was ultimately recovered by American forces.
As the USV did not store any classified information, the company can simply deploy another one of the hundreds of Saildrones it possesses, gaining greater experience at anticipating hostile interference, Jenkins told Breaking Defense in September.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.