Almost 40 years after the release of “Jaws”, a movie that kept a lot of people out of the water in the summer of 1975, the US Navy has introduced a smaller yet potentially far more lethal version of the shark that terrorized the citizens of and visitors to the fictional town of Amity Island. Referred to as Ghost Swimmers, these underwater drones are designed to swim like a 5 foot, 100 pound Bluefin tuna with a tail that oscillates back and forth, but bear a striking similarity to a shark.
Ghost Swimmers are the first unmanned underwater vehicle to be introduced as part of the Navy’s “Silent Nemo Rapid Innovation Cell”, a program purposed for the development of an array of fish-like underwater drones that are operational at depths ranging from 10 inches to 300 feet. In the description of the drones’ capabilities, a Navy spokesperson listed, “…providing additional low-visibility intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to keep ships safe – and to conduct hull inspections” as the initial functions that will carried out by the vehicles, but additional capabilities will likely be added as well.
The unmanned vehicles, which are controlled by a joystick, are currently being deployed as remote sensors gathering oceanic data such as tides and swells, as well as air temperatures, barometer readings, and changes in weather. While all of these stated uses seem relatively innocuous, keep in mind that these are military vehicles and, as such, will likely be weaponized for the same functions as airborne drones. Designed by Boston Engineering to simulate the size and swimming motion of fish, the vehicles will offer a stealth component with virtually noiseless operation and the presentation of images that will be difficult to differentiate from real fish on radar. The oscillating tail motion also delivers an additional benefit that will likely lead to further development; it is far more energy efficient than a propeller-driven system.
Unmanned underwater vehicles are nothing new to the Navy, having first been deployed in the 1950’s, and a model called the OpenRov, which is controlled by a laptop and can operate at over 300 feet below the surface, can be purchased at retail for under $1,000. Unmanned vehicles were also featured during the search for the missing Malaysian Air flight 370 and there are at least 12 other countries that are developing undersea drones. There are stark differences, however, between these versions and the next generation of stealthy and weaponized undersea drones, which will likely mark a new era of warfare at sea.