‘Marine drones’ tested in Toulon

An odd underwater ballet has been unfolding in the Mediterranean port these past few days with new robots being tested for potential future naval use to combat threats

'Marine drones' tested in Toulon
The new submarine robot "GIRONA500" submerged in La Seyne-sur-Mer. Picture: Boris Horvat/AFP

Under the scrutiny of their masters, whose eyes are glued to computer screens, the world's first fleet of "marine drones" is being put through its paces.

Five European countries — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal — have sent prototypes here under a four-year, four-million-euro ($5.32-million) programme to build a squad of unmanned underwater rovers.

Deployed from a surface vessel, but communicating among themselves and using artificial intelligence, the wireless scouts would spread out in a surveillance network.

Using video cameras and echosounders, the explorers would help to create 3D maps of underwater terrain, benefiting oceanographers, archaeologists,offshore oil and gas drillers, pollution monitors, marine biologists and other civilian users.

But there is an obvious naval use too, for a flexible network of small, hard-to-detect drones would multiply the surveillance capacity against mines and other threats.

"Underwater robots are not new — we've been involved in them for years," said Vincent Rigaud, director of underwater systems at the French Institute for Research for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer), one of the world's top names in oceanography.

"What is new, though, is creating a fleet of them, with autonomous capacity."

Achieving this means overcoming two major hurdles, Rigaud explained.

One is software: creating artificial intelligence programmes that give the options for cooperating in a group and coping with the uncertainties of the marine environment, with its tides and currents.

The other is communications. Airborne drones can talk to each other, and to their controller, by the instant means of radio.

But radio waves do not penetrate underwater, which leaves sound the only option for communication among the marine drones.

Rather like a school of dolphins chirping to each other, the robots use acoustic signals to swap information and instructions — and as experiments have shown, this is not an easy thing.

The communication is frustratingly long because the data flow is so slow, and the tenuous sound link is easily disrupted by other sources of noise, such as a passing vessel.

"It's like going back to modems in the dawn of the computer age," said Pere Ridao of the University of Girona in Spain.

"The maximum flow rate is about 100,000 times slower than a typical ADSL connection. It takes several minutes to send a picture."

On a mission, the robots would share a rough map of the underwater terrain, showing major obstacles to avoid, but would then work by themselves within designated parameters.

What they see and monitor would be stored in onboard memories which would then be downloaded after they are recovered. Powerful computers would crunch the raw data into usable applications.

"The vehicles are not physically connected but virtually connected," explained Antonio Pascoal, a professor at Portugal's Superior Technical Institute (IST).

"The idea is for them to dialogue and adapt to marine geometry without human intervention."

The programme, called MORPH (Marine Robotic System of Self-Organising, Logically Linked Physical Nodes), was launched in February 2012 with the help of the European Commission. Thirty-two scientists are taking part.

Things are still at an early stage, with up to five machines learning how to move in formation in shallow water.

The models generally favour either a torpedo or a "sledge" design, reflecting at this conceptual stage the different notions for dealing with mission requirements.

Italy, for instance, has a 31-kilo (66-pound) torpedo-shaped tiddler, designed by the NATO Undersea Research Centre (NURC) in La Spezia, which can
operate for eight hours in depths of up to 80 metres (260 feet).

Spain's 200-kilo (440-pound) Girona 500 comprises three rounded tubes driven by twin propellers, able to operate at depths of up to 500 metres (1,625 feet), also for eight hours, according to the MORPH website


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Drone flies over Macron’s holiday home in wake of Maduro ‘attack’

An investigation has been opened into the flight of a drone over French President Emmanuel Macron’s summer residence Fort de Brégançon on Monday, just one day after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro escaped an alleged drone explosion attack on his life.

Drone flies over Macron's holiday home in wake of Maduro 'attack'
Photos: AFP

French authorities are looking into a drone that on Monday afternoon flew over the southeastern French Cape of Brégançon in the Var, where Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte are spending their summer holidays. 

“An investigation into this drone flight is currently underway,” the Elysée Palace told French news agency AFP, not giving any indication of whether the drone had been shot down for security reasons. 

Macron invited British Prime Minister Theresa May (R) to Fort de Brégançon in Bornes-les-Mimosas before  his two weeks of summer holidays. Photo: AFP

The French government added that “the whole of the President's holiday programme is private and unofficial”, including all outings which he will go on in his two-week summer break.

Fort de Brégançon, a medieval fortress on an islet off the French Mediterranean coast, has been the official retreat of the President of France since 1968.

The drone incident came less that a day after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro survived an alleged assassination attempt involving two exploding drones during a military parade in Caracas.

Maduro has since pointed the finger at neighbouring Colombia, Venezuela’s ultra-right wing and financial backers who live in the US state of Florida, leading some international sources to question the credibility of the alleged drone attack.

But both incidents involving Macron and Maduro beg the question of whether current security measures to protect global Heads of State are equipped and ready to deal with drone warfare and other forms of terrorism by joystick.

Just as crucial is knowing how easy it is for the public to gain access to this cutting-edge and potentially lethal technology.

The world’s commercial drone market has flourished in recent years, with widespread availability and falling prices.

“Quadcopter” for example, drones that can be operated from a mile away and can fly for 20 minutes+ on one single charge cost less than €850 ($1,000 online), although the amount of weight they can carry is limited.

However, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State have already used drones to carry out attacks by dropping grenades or crashing into infrastructure.

There have also been worrying incidents such as January 2015 drone crash onto the White House lawn and a few months later a drone carrying radioactive sand from the Fukushima nuclear disaster crashed into the Japanese prime minister’s office, although the amount of radiation was minimal.

In July, Saudi Arabian security forces also shot down a recreational drone near a royal palace, leading to speculation of a coup attempt.