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Hunting or sweeping mines at sea is very time-consuming and not without danger. It is almost always carried out by mine-clearing vessels (minesweepers and minehunters). It has long been known that this can be done in different ways. For example, by deploying unmanned vessels, but no watertight system has been found for this up until now.

A wide-ranging system of unmanned surface and underwater craft and an onshore mobile operations room.

Yet Thales, the French defense company, thinks it has found the solution that will enable minesweepers and minehunters to be phased out once and for all. There will no longer be a manned ship with underwater cables sailing back and forth. Nor will ships equipped with basic sonar technology be needed. Instead, a wide-ranging system of unmanned surface and underwater craft and an onshore mobile operations room will take their place.

Positioning of unmanned underwater craft

The innovative system is made up of an unmanned craft (or USV, which stands for ‘Unmanned Surface Vehicle’). This is positioned on a certain sea surface. This vessel is equipped with an autonomous navigation system. Unmanned Surface Vehicles are positioned below the sea surface.

These so-called UUV’s (‘Unmanned Underwater Vehicles‘) are very maneuverable allowing them to explore sea depths while being operated either above water or ashore. The UUVs are geolocated and use the latest generation of synthetic diaphragm sonar.

Engeland en Frankrijk starten met ’s werelds eerste autonome mijnenbestrijding
© Thales

There are also underwater sonar vessels (for insiders: ‘Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar’), which are connected to the USV on the water. This type of floating sonar incorporates advanced technology for very high-resolution image quality, combined with long ranges and high speeds, enabling naval personnel to quickly inspect a large area of the seabed.

The USV also has remotely controlled devices capable of ‘neutralizing’ (as the term goes) mines or other threats. Various elements of this system (the unmanned vessel above water, the UUVs and the underwater sonar, etc.) are remotely controlled by personnel in a mobile operations room. These are capable of controlling up to three systems in parallel at sea.

Joint cooperation on defense and security

The system has been jointly tested by the British and French navies for five years out at sea. This covered an area the equivalent of 30,000 soccer pitches at sea, sometimes under very rough conditions. The anti-mine program is the concrete result of wha tare known as the Lancaster House Treaties between the United Kingdom and France. These concern cooperation in the field of defense and security and was entered into in 2010. According to Thales, the joint program is the world’s first fully-integrated unmanned anti-mine system.

Perhaps to avoid any criticism in the UK, the partners emphasize that the program is equally divided between the two countries and will rely on state-of-the-art technology. On the English side, BAE Sytems (developer of military systems) and Saab, among others, are involved in the project.