Northrop Grumman and Seatrec recently received an Explorer Prize in a research competition for their roles in extending the ranges and operating times of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). The competition, the Powering the Blue Economy Ocean Observing Prize sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seeks technological advances to enhance the performance of UUVs. The two companies were recognized for their teamwork on the initial development of the Mission Unlimited UUV Station, which is being developed as a means of remotely providing power to and transferring data from UUVs, effectively extending their practical operating times at sea. The competition refers to the ocean-based economy as the Blue Economy. The next phase of the competition is for the companies to develop the Mission Unlimited UUV Station.
Because of the limited energy storage capabilities of batteries for UUVs and the lack of available maritime energy sources, the Mission Unlimited UUV Station offers a means for greatly extending the range and usefulness of maritime UUVs. Autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs) and UUVs typically must make a near-surface approach once each day to offload data and/or to recharge batteries. This limits their range and requires the availability of a surface vehicle. Each company contributed to a solution. The NiobiCon electrical connectors from Northrop Grumman allow connection and disconnection of fully powered electrical contacts underwater while the energy harvesting technology from Seatrec extracts energy from the thermal gradients of the water. In addition, data bubbles from Northrop Grumman make it possible to transfer large amounts of subsea data to the surface by means of RF satcom technology.
Alan Lytle, vice-president for undersea systems at Northrop Grumman, noted: “The Mission Unlimited UUV Station design will provide scalable underwater charging and data transfer. Extending the endurance, working time, and utility of unmanned underwater vehicles directly supports the U.S. Navy’s focus on distributed maritime operations.” Dr. Yi Chao, founder and CEO of Seatrec, added: “This DOE and NOAA prize provides a unique opportunity to combine Seatrec’s technology to harvest energy from temperature distances in the ocean with Northrop Grumman’s innovation of NiobiCon connector and data bubbles. We believe this strategic partnership will provide a transformative solution for persistent and sustainable ocean observing systems.” The energy- and data-harvesting station will increase the endurance and range of any existing UUV and dramatically reduce latency between data collection and analysis. The proposed solution will also provide increased data collection capabilities through its capabilities of operating with higher-power sensors.