Florida Keys News
Monday, September 14, 2009
Keys waters are sub testing ground
Navy tests environmentally sensitive submarine

A small, unmanned submarine recently sighted in Key West waters represents the future of an increasingly eco-friendly Navy, researchers say. The Navy, they say, is going green.

Developers of the state-of-the-art prototype sub being tested in Key West say their Sea Maverick vessel is proof positive that military planners are committed to developing technology that reduces stress on the environment while still completing 21st century missions.

Jim Galambos stood over the submarine on the edge of the docks of Coast Guard Sector Key West Wednesday with his team of fellow engineers from Pennsylvania State University. Galambos is a former Naval officer with a doctorate in physics. He is the director of the Advanced Technology Office at the university.

The $5 million Sea Maverick is 4 feet in diameter and 25 feet long, but sections can be added that make it 36 feet long. The Sea Maverick is being developed by a small army of scientists at the Penn State Applied Research Laboratory, Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research and Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF).

"This is cutting edge research," Galambos said. "For me, this is one the most exciting projects I've ever been a part of. You're looking at the future of unmanned marine systems."

Going green

The Sea Maverick leaves no exhaust, as it runs on batteries. It has an advanced propeller system encased in a housing that prohibits damage to sea beds, and it uses pressurized air and water for buoyancy, which minimizes its interaction with the water around it, Galambos said.

Researchers are working on a classified propulsion system that employs sea water, among other means, Galambos said. The propeller design is highly efficient and uses far less energy than earlier prototypes.

Sandy Brooks is a retired Navy officer and the JIATF representative overseeing the Sea Maverick's development. The North Carolina native said she's committed to the Sea Maverick's mission, and that means keeping it green.

"I tell these guys they ain't going to make me happy," Brooks said, laughing with the Penn State researchers. "We have the highest standard at JIATF. If it gets my stamp of approval it's going to work in theater, anywhere, anytime."

The Sea Maverick is also quiet, an obvious military advantage that also reduces stress on nearby animals. Brooks joked that the Sea Maverick seems to be attracting sea life.

"One male manatee took a real interest in her," Brooks said. "I'll leave it at that."

Dolphins have found the Sea Maverick a welcome curiosity as well, Galambos added.

"Years ago the Navy would dump garbage at sea, and we've made leaps and bounds beyond that," Brooks said. "Everyone on this is committed to the environmental aspect of the project. The Navy is moving rapidly in that direction and for many, it's high time."

The mission

The Sea Maverick is similar to the unmanned aerial drones already in use by the Air Force in that it lacks a human pilot or "driver." The Sea Maverick is autonomous, meaning it's being designed to operate without the need of remote controls. Many unmanned airplanes, however, require pilots on the ground to operate them remotely.

Unlike its airborne counterparts, the Sea Maverick is not designed to carry weapons, researchers said. It does carry cameras, satellites and other gear, some of which are currently classified, Brooks said.

The military is increasingly spending more money on unmanned vehicles. They're cheaper and safer, Galambos said.

The Sea Maverick is the military's response to "asymmetrical targets," Brooks said. Asymmetrical in military parlance refers to highly agile multi-purpose threats with no clear country of origin. A go-fast boat or self-propelled semisubmersable submarine carrying multiple forms of cargo (drugs, arms, people, money) for instance, may be defined as an asymmetrical target.

Brooks declined to elaborate on specific Sea Maverick missions, but added that the "capabilities of this advanced conveyance can have immense application to both industry, academia and military non-kinetic missions."

Researchers are testing the Sea Maverick's ability to "think on its own," Galambos said.

Florida Keys waters are ideal for tracking such a vessel, Galambos said. Researchers considered taking the project to the Bahamas before settling on Key West, Brooks said. Plus, proving the sub did not damage the protected Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary may carry more weight with military leaders, researchers said.

"This is a fun and unique opportunity to work in Key West and take this vehicle out, use it, test it and figure it out," Galambos said. "It's been a challenge, the green aspects of the project, but as we scientists say, 'We fail our way to success.' "

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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