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NEWS | Dec. 18, 2014

Navy develops 'GhostSwimmer' drone that looks like a shark. Seriously

By Anna Mulrine Staff writer

Washington — It is the latest offering in what the US military calls its science-fiction-turned-reality projects: the GhostSwimmer, a reconnaissance robot with an exterior shell built to look a lot like a shark cutting through the ocean depths.

It is the latest experimental addition to the Pentagon’s burgeoning fleet of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs in Navy parlance. 

At university labs across the country, for example, the Navy is bankrolling the creation of robotic jellyfish, which mimic the efficient natural movements of the ocean creature and could one day prove useful in underwater surveillance.

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There are also Office of Naval Research projects to mimic the nearly wake-free undulations of the eel.

The GhostSwimmer is designed to recreate the propulsive power of the tuna fish, though it resembles a shark, complete with dorsal fin.

Coming in at five feet in length, it weighs roughly 100 pounds and can operate in water depths ranging from 10 inches to 300 feet, according to the Navy.

“GhostSwimmer will allow the Navy to have success during more types of missions while keeping divers and sailors safe,” Michael Rufo, director of Boston Engineering’s Advanced System Group, which developed the UUV for the Navy, said in a Navy press release.

The Navy put it to work off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., with sailors controlling its movements through the use of joysticks. 

It is part of a project named after a Disney fish – deemed Silent NEMO – developed by the chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell, in which young Navy service members are often asked to quickly incorporate cutting-edge technologies into devices the military can use.

In this case, it’s an effort to “take the lessons of Darwinism, and apply them,” says Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, and the former deputy director of Future Operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“It’s a big leap forward in terms of propulsion,” he says, adding that a ship’s propeller, for example, is a “relatively inefficient” means of propulsion. “We haven’t been able to mechanically replicate what a fish does until now.”

For the time being, the Navy has said that GhostSwimmer is being used to gather data on tides, currents, wakes, and weather conditions.

In the future, it could be tasked with swimming into hostile waters for reconnaissance missions, Navy officials say.

“Anytime you have a new, groundbreaking technology, you’re always going to apply that in a low-risk fashion in order to understand what it can do,” Mr. Harmer says.

“Right now we’re using them for gathering environmental data. As the technology matures, we’re certainly going to use them for reconnaissance, and eventually, we’re going to weaponize them,” he adds. 

“There isn’t any ground-breaking technology that the military hasn’t found some way to eventually weaponize, Harmer says.”

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