Underwater crawler to reduce risky mine removal

A mine-busting underwater crawler developed by Flinders University was among new technologies demonstrated as part of a national ‘Mine Counter-Measures in a Day’ Project.

Teams from Thales Australia, Defence Science Technology (DST) Group, Flinders University, University of Sydney (USyd), University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Western Sydney University (WSU) and Australian firms Mission Systems and Ineni Realtime gathered on Christies Beach recently to demonstrate the capabilities of novel defence equipment.

‘Mine Counter-Measures (MCM) in a Day’ is a five-year, $15 million program funded jointly by the Trusted Autonomous Defence CRC, Navy and Thales Underwater Systems Australia. Its aim is to use un-crewed underwater vehicles to look for mines, unexploded ordnance and other hazards at sea, to reduce the threat they pose to Australia’s shipping and defence forces.

The project will design, develop, test and evaluate various teams of micro Autonomous Underwater Vehicle swarms and Autonomous Surface/Subsurface Vessels to provide an autonomous mine clearance capability that operates in the amphibious zone close to shore.

The amphibious zone, also termed ‘the littoral environment,’ is notoriously complex to navigate when searching for underwater mines. An effective Mine Counter-Measure system must overcome tides, waves and currents, and be equipped to work in a low-visibility and low-communications environment.

The MCM In a Day project aims to eventually supplement current practices that utilise the expertise of Navy Clearance Divers in exploratory Rapid Environmental Assessment of an area.

Professor Karl Sammut, Director of Flinders’ Centre for Defence Engineering Research and Training (CDERT), says the Subsea Crawler vehicle was designed by the CDERT team and built in collaboration with German partner iSeaMC, with the aim of protecting lives.

“Most de-mining activities are conducted with specialised clearance vessels in deeper waters, while divers are still required to investigate and clear threats in the relatively shallow and turbulent waters of the surf zone,” says Professor Sammut. “This is where the wave action and turbidity is significant, putting clearance divers at risk. This project is specifically targeted at addressing this problem and reducing risk to human life.”

Thales is the lead organisation managing the collaboration between the partners who are each making a unique contribution. Flinders is working on the Subsea Crawler, USyd is developing a hovering autonomous underwater vehicle, Mission Systems is creating a small surface vehicle to operate in the surf zone, UTS is developing the mission planning software for the swarm of vehicles, and INENI and UWS are bringing together the Human-Machine Interface software for operators to observe and manage the team of vehicles remotely.

Most equipment has been developed in Australia or brought in on specification, then modified to support Australian conditions. Total sovereign control is in place for all software and hardware elements of the project.

The MCM in a Day team at Christies Beach

“It’s been an excellent collaboration that demonstrates what can truly be achieved when you bring industry and academia together with defence partners to work on a large project,” says Professor Sammut.

“The Thales team has done an outstanding job in working with all the partners. During October and November in 2022, all the partners met in person in our Maritime Lab at Flinders University, to integrate our respective systems before the combined trials at Christies Beach.

“This project has built on our expertise in maritime autonomy, and given us an invaluable opportunity to work with other excellent partners.”

John Best, Thales Australia’s Chief Technical Officer, was present at the demonstration, and noted the step-change this capability will provide to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

“This project will utilise technology to transform high risk, and labour-intensive activities and accelerate amphibious zone mine clearance,” says Mr Best. “By reducing the time it takes to clear a landing zone, while also gathering and analysing mission critical environmental data, personnel safety will be enhanced, as will the gathering of operational intelligence.’

Richard Price, Defence SA Chief Executive, says the project is a great example of the benefits that collaboration brings.

“Collaboration is vital for innovation and the development of this cutting-edge defence technology is a great example of what can be achieved when universities and industry work closely with Defence to co-design solutions to increasingly complex challenges,” says Mr Price.

“South Australia has a long history of success in defence research and development, and this latest demonstration showcases our strength as a critical testbed for defence technologies.”

The demonstration at Christies Beach marks an important milestone for the project, which is now in its second year. Further development and demonstration work will continue during 2023, with the project to be completed in early 2024.

Posted in
College of Science and Engineering Defence