We'll pay £400k for a depth charge-proof robot submarine, says UK's Ministry of Defence

British military continues push for new autonomous tech

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Britain's Ministry of Defence is offering a £400,000 pot of cash to anyone who can develop an autonomous submarine capable of withstanding naval depth charges.

In the latest phase of its "autonomy in challenging environments" R&D programme, the ministry wants to hear from companies who can build underwater robots that can survive "sudden and enduring pressure or acoustic extremes underwater" as well as "congested and contested [electromagnetic] environments (including radio frequency (RF) emissions)".

"Many autonomous systems have been developed and optimised in ideal conditions," said the MoD in its competition document, adding that "consequently, there is a need for technologies to enhance the performance of autonomous systems in challenging environments to support current and future military operations."

Up to £400k is available to successful applicants to the programme, with the overall available amount being capped at £2m.

The so-called "unmanned underwater vehicle" must have "the ability to sense, interpret, and understand its local environment, and then respond autonomously to that understanding" in a way that helps it avoid bumping into the seabed – or depth charges, presumably dropped by pursuing Russian or Chinese warships trying to destroy the robot sub.

Lest the robot sub go bananas under the strain of being depth-charged, the ministry also wants solid ideas on "how the autonomous system continues to conduct the mission effectively and safely in line with the human operator's intent" if it loses comms with the meatsacks twiddling its knobs back at base.

They also want to ensure the autonomous vehicle makes an effort to get back in contact with humans to finish its duties after losing touch, rather than doing a Marvin the Paranoid Android and stomping off in a huff.

As well as the robot sub, the MoD is continuing its push to invest in all things drone, including anti-drone tech. The latest competition covers unmanned underwater vehicles, sea surface vehicles, ground and air vehicles, doing a range of tasks from simple surveillance through moving supplies around – and, potentially, more.

Critically, possible suppliers of robo-mateys to the Royal Navy should be able to put forward "proof of concept research which has already demonstrated potential and been translated to practical demonstration." They don't want space robots either: "We are focussing inside the Earth's atmosphere."

Next year the Royal Navy is due to sail aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth into the South China Sea, carrying a dozen F-35 Lightning fighter jets from the US Marine Corps as well as a squadron of British-owned Lightnings. She will be escorted by two anti-submarine frigates, two anti-aircraft destroyers, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, a tanker and an ammo resupply ship. The US and the Netherlands are supplying one escorting warship each. ®

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