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PHOTO CAPTION: Boeing Echo Voyager unmanned underwater vessel.

UEVs: The Submerged World of Underwater Electric Vehicles

They are one of the oldest forms of hybrid electric vehicles, and like their surface counterparts, the human is about to be relegated to the role of an observer or target.

Published: 11-Dec-2017

It was 90 years ago that the US Navy proposed powering its new S-Class submarines using a system similar to what powers today's hybrid cars - the Prius and the Volt, for example - an internal combustion engine connected via a special transmission to a generator/motor combination. On the surface, diesel engines would turn the prop shaft and/or recharge the batteries. Underwater, the boats were propelled by their batteries and electric motors.

That is still how most non-nuclear submarines operate today. Like porpoises and whales, they have to come up to breath, and that makes them and their crews vulnerable to detection and attack.

So, what if those batteries could be recharged while the boat was underwater using inductive charging that transmits electric current magnetically. It's conceivable a submarine or better yet, an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) could stay down, undetected for weeks or months at a time, specially if you removed humans from the equation.

That's seems increasingly where undersea naval operations are headed: electrically powered, semi or fully autonomous naval patrol vehicles that can perform multiple tasks, both mundane and potentially lethal like sea floor mapping or mine detection. The rise of autonomous undersea vehicle warfare has become significant enough the US Navy has formed its first Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron One, or UUVRON 1.

As with carmakers and airplane designers, finding a suitable battery to power the underwater drone is an ongoing challenge. For example, the HUGIN's class of AUVs are available with lithium polymer batteries offering 24 hours of operational service at 4 kts, or an aluminum oxygen "semi" fuel cell that can extend operations to 60 hours, again at 4 kts. At some point, they have to recharge, which is why there's interest in doing it underwater. A US Navy experiment successfully transferred 2 kWh of electricity wirelessly to a mid-sized UUV.

Of course, like autonomous car skeptics, AUVs have theirs, as well as National Interest suggests in Could Underwater Drones Replace Today's Lethal Submarines?, concluding:

"the fundamentals of the underwater environment aren’t going to change, and UUVs are likely to continue to be a complement to manned submarines, helping them circumvent new detection techniques."

But then again, give carmakers, airplane designers, and nautical engineers the right battery and lots of things will change.

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