Pentagon plans to seed ocean floor with payloads waiting to be activated

Sensors, drones and other devices can be a great help to U.S. forces at sea, but not if forces get caught in a situation without them. That’s why the military is planning to plant them in potential trouble spots ahead of time, and have them wait on the ocean floor to be called into action.

The program is called the Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is preparing for Phase 2 and Phase 3, according to a pre-solicitation notice. The distributed systems would be remotely activated when needed and recalled to the surface by “falling upward.”

The project is a part of an effort to develop low-cost, unmanned and distributed systems in response to the limits imposed by costs and complexity in working in forward operating areas.

“The UFP approach averts solutions to deploy technology from legacy platforms or to grow the complexity and reach of unmanned systems,” DARPA said in its announcement. “Instead, the approach centers on pre-deploying deep-ocean nodes years in advance in forward areas which can be commanded from standoff to deliver a wide range of unmanned and distributed systems to the sub-surface, surface and air.”

DARPA is largely depending on the node’s natural habitat as a means of avoiding detection. With nearly 50 percent of the world’s oceans between four and six kilometers deep, the nodes would have plenty of places to hide – the sheer cost of finding and retrieving would make it not worth an adversary’s effort.

The UFP nodes would have to survive at a depth greater than six kilometers, last up to five years and be able to operate less than two hours after being commanded to launch from the bottom of the ocean. Each node would be is comprised of three main subsystems: a payload that executes waterborne or airborne applications after reaching the surface, a “riser” that encapsulates and launches the payload, and a communications system that would trigger the launch protocol.

Possible payloads could include waterborne and airborne cameras, decoys, networked nodes, beacons, jammers and obscurants, according to the original 2013 DARPA outline, reported Time Magazine. The payload missions would include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as disruption, deception, networking, and rescue. In one example, DARPA has said that a small unmanned aerial vehicle could be launched to the surface in a capsule, and then take flight to provide situational awareness. Seagoing vehicle also could be stored in the nodes.

The first phase of the project solicited conceptual designs for the UFP system. Contracts were awarded to Sparton Electronics and to Zeta Associates, reports Military Aerospace.

The current solicitation is for the second and third phases of the program. Phase two is aimed at integrating the riser and payload systems and a demonstration of the UFP communications systems. The third phase will integrate UFP communications with the UFP nodes. Both phases will involve at-sea development and demonstrations in the Western Pacific that are estimated to occur in fiscal year 2015 and 2016.

DARPA expects to award $21 million to multiple contracts for Phase 2 and $17 million to multiple contracts for Phase 3 if DARPA chooses to exercise the option.

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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