Robotic spy fish conducts underwater surveillance

The US Navy is testing a fish like robot designed to carry out stealthy, silent and secure underwater surveillance missions - from intelligence gathering to hull inspections, where its silent operation and mission endurance would provide great advantages to sailors and marines.

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The GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), developed by the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell project Silent NEMO, undergoes testing at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek - Fort Story. Photo: U.S. Navy by Edward Guttierrez III
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GhostSwimmer, derived from the BIOSwimmer, is a robotic tuna fish unmanned underwater vehicle developed for underwater surveillance by Weltham MA. based by Boston Engineering.

The U.S. Navy completed tests on the GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story (JEBLC-FS) this week. GhostSwimmer is the latest in a series of innovative projects developed under project ‘Silent NEMO’ Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC).

The GhostSwimmer was developed to resemble the shape and mimic the swimming style of a large fish. At a length of approximately 1.5 meters (5 feet) and a weight of nearly 45kg. (100 pounds), the GhostSwimmer vehicle can operate in water depths ranging from 0.25 to 90 meters (10 inches to 300 feet).

Its bio-mimicry provides additional security during low-visibility intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and friendly hull inspections, while quieter than propeller driven craft of the same size, according to Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC).

An earlier 'fish', the BIOSwimmer was tested by DHS for the detection of drug smuggled in ship hulls. In 2013 it was tested on the battleship TEXAS. Photo: DHS
An earlier ‘fish’, the BIOSwimmer was tested by DHS for the detection of drug smuggled in ship hulls. In 2013 it was tested on the battleship TEXAS. Photo: DHS

“GhostSwimmer will allow the Navy to have success on more types of missions, while keeping divers and sailors safe,” said Michael Rufo, director of Boston Engineering’s Advanced Systems Group. Boston Engineering developed the tuna-sized UUV that has been gathering data at JEBLC-FS on tides, varied currents, wakes, and weather conditions for the development of future tasks. “It swims just like a fish does, by oscillating its tail fin back and forth,” said Rufo. “The unit is a combination of unmanned systems engineering and unique propulsion and control capabilities.”

The fish-like GhostSwimmer’s bio-mimicry provides additional security during low-visibility ISR missions

The robot is capable of operating autonomously for extended periods of time due to its long-lasting battery, but it can also be controlled via laptop with a 152 m’ (500-foot) tether. The tether is long enough to transmit information while inspecting a ship’s hull, for example, but, if operating independently (without a tether), the robot will have to periodically be brought to the surface periodically to download its data.

A variant model of the GhostSwimmer UUV awaits testing during a demonstration at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek - Fort Story. Photo: U.S. Navy by Edward Guttierrez III
A variant model of the GhostSwimmer UUV awaits testing during a demonstration at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek – Fort Story. Photo: U.S. Navy by Edward Guttierrez III

Silent NEMO is an experiment that explores the possible uses for biomimetic, unmanned underwater vehicles developed under the Chief of Naval Operation Rapid Innovation Cell (CIRC). The CRIC was established in 2012 to provide junior leaders with an opportunity to identify and rapidly field emerging technologies that address the Navy’s most pressing challenges, and it aims to find ways to quickly employ them.

A similar project undertaken by Boston Engineering is the ‘BIOSwimmer’, a six-foot-long robotic fish designed to detect contraband hidden on a ship’s hull. For this mission the ‘fish’ was equipped with a sophisticated sensor suite, demonstrated last year on the Battleship Texas berthed in Houston TX, as part of a collaborative exercise of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.

The robotic fish was used to detect packages of mock contraband of varying sizes placed by testers in hard-to-reach spaces on the battleship’s hull. The development of the system was funded by DHS Science & Technology Small Business Innovation Research funding.

The GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), developed by the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell project Silent NEMO, undergoes testing at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek - Fort Story. Photo: U.S. Navy by Edward Guttierrez III
The GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), developed by the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell project Silent NEMO, undergoes testing at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek – Fort Story. Photo: U.S. Navy by Edward Guttierrez III