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Mine Countermeasures - Search and destroy

April 2024 |  technology report | UAS

Freelance defence journalist  

As the threat of sea mines makes a resurgence and leading navies move towards deploying arrays of uncrewed systems for MCM operations, Shephard looks at the contribution of UAS to a multi-domain network of autonomous and remotely operated vehicles active above, on and below the waves. 

Above: The V-200 from UMS Skeldar is integrated into the Belgian-Dutch rMCM toolbox and is typical of the class of UAS envisaged for counter-mine operations. (Photo: UMS Skeldar) 

As militaries look to a future of multi-domain operations, many are exploring potential applications for UAVs in naval operations. Mine countermeasures (MCM) are one such focus.  

The use of uncrewed assets equipped with payloads for both detection and/or neutralisation of mines is becoming a go-to solution for the defence industry around the globe, according to Neil Hunter, global head of sales at Schiebel.

‘The simultaneous and complimentary deployment of manned assets, such as ships, with unmanned airborne and waterborne vehicles enables a safe and efficient detection of mines,’ he said.  

Hunter noted that Schiebel’s Camcopter S-100 is designed to carry a variety of sensors that could be used for mine detection, such as a bathymetric LIDAR scanner. The company demonstrated two such payloads during NATO’s REPMUS 2023 exercise: the Riegl VQ-840-G (in a demonstration with Thales) and Fugro’s Rapid Airborne Multibeam Mapping System (RAMMS) LIDAR (alongside Areté), with both demonstrations involving rapid environmental assessment and mine detection. 

‘Through the open architecture of the Thales MCM mission management system (M-Cube), the Camcopter S-100 was able to perform a complete airborne MCM mine hunting capability, achieving 100% detection of all mine targets,’ Hunter said.

When equipped with the VQ-840-G, the S-100 ‘carried out laser range measurements for high-resolution surveying of underwater topography with a narrow, visible green laser beam, emitted from a pulsed laser source. This enabled the mapping of coastlines and shallow waters and subsequently the detection of potential mines,’ Hunter said.  

Additionally, he said that high-resolution EO/IR cameras can also be used effectively by UAVs to find moored mines below the surface in relatively low water levels.  

The flights with RAMMS saw the S-100 map areas that could not be safely accessed by crewed surface assets, specifically in shallow water. Additionally, another exercise during REPMUS 2023 saw the S-100 use its cargo hook to deliver and deploy a Seaber YUCO AUV, plus a Teledyne Webb APEX profiling float. 

‘Both unmanned surface vehicles were used to produce a topobathymetric situational picture with the data being sent to the S-100 for dissemination or directly to a ship’s combat management system (CMS),’ said Hunter. 

Untapped potential

Daniel Scourzic, MCM and deepwater product line director at Exail, said a UAS can be ‘used to detect or identify drifting mines or mines that are below the surface, the depth of detection depending on the water turbidity. It can also be used to detect mines in very shallow waters where USVs or AUVs cannot be deployed.’ 

However, he noted that their full potential would only be realised with future developments such as new types of sensors, as well as ‘performing data fusion coming from different types of sensors. In future they could also possibly be used for neutralising or for helping to neutralise drifting mines.’ 

Exail has developed a modular MCM package, which can incorporate several types of uncrewed and remotely operated vehicles, including UAVs. A consortium of Exail and Naval Group was chosen by the Belgian and Netherlands navies to fill their replacement MCM (rMCM) programme needs.  

A V-200 UAS from UMS Skeldar is integrated by Exail into the rMCM toolbox; it can carry three different payloads, a LIDAR, an EO/IR gimbal and a radio communication relay.  

Above: HNLMS Vlissingen, one of the rMCM vessels developed for the Royal Netherlands Navy, will deploy a range of uncrewed assets. (Photo: Naval Group) 

Objects detected using LIDAR or video cameras are also fed into the overall MCM picture, Scourzic added, merging data from different sensors. ‘To date, the specialised equipment is the LIDAR, but infrared or video cameras could also be used to detect mines on or just below the surface,’ he noted. 

A spokesperson for Naval Group said the rMCM package is designed with one overarching and crucial aim: keeping sailors away from the threat zone and minimising any need for human intervention. The stand-off concept used means only drones enter the suspected minefield.  

Clearance operations can also be conducted more quickly, they added. ‘While there will still be a phased approach from the search to the neutralisation of the mines, most of the tasks can be carried out in parallel by different drones, rather than one after the other, as is the case today.’ 

Covering the distance 

Richard Hjelmberg, VP of business development at UMS Skeldar, supplier of rMCM’s V-200 UAS, highlighted two key elements of his company’s focus in the toolbox.  

First is ability of the UAV to act as a radio relay ‘so that both unmanned surface and undersea vehicles can be further away from the ship and still be connected to the ship’s command and control system’. It can also link UxVs with an onshore C2 centre this way. 

Second, Hjelmberg pointed to the ability of a UAS to carry payloads such as LIDAR:

‘We can use our system to search for mines from further distances,’ he said. ‘UAS can fly further away, faster, and at a longer range to search for mines, ahead of a ship. If a ship would like to move quickly out from an area where they know that they have possible mines, we can be in front of the ship scanning the sea lane, so that the ship can move safely without being obstructed by any mines.’ 

Data fusion through the MCM combat management system is a vital component of the approach, he agreed: ‘You don't want to have say five different tools on the various workstations. You have one commander of the MCM operation who can use all the information gathered from the tools in the water or from us in the air.’ 

While the Belgian-Dutch programme is one of the first to have such a comprehensive toolbox, Hjelmberg said he expects other navies to follow suit: ‘That kind of toolbox concept is what many nations are looking for, to dedicate the specific ship for MCM operations on a wider scale.’ 

These concepts are now increasingly in focus because of a growing maturity in uncrewed systems and the way in which they interact, noted Hjelmberg. There has been swift development over the past decade, he added.  

‘Historically, you had a lot of different, individual nodes supporting each other in an MCM operation,’ Hjelmberg said. ‘You perhaps had a ship with a sonar that found a mine somewhere, and then communicated with another, smaller vessel that you could send down under the sea surface.’  

However, the technology has now developed to a scenario where one ship can handle ‘the entire operation based on these unmanned vehicles, because there is so much autonomous capability built into them’.  

New sensors will come to market in the coming years, further enhancing the ability of UAVs to detect mines, Hjelmberg added. For example, he pointed to the challenge of detecting floating mines, particularly if there are large waves.

‘It’s actually easier to find a mine which is 10 metres below the sea surface – it’s easier to track and find these.’ 

Hjelmberg said that new video detection and ranging (VIDAR) sensors could play a key role in helping to detect such objects, providing optical radar solutions that can find mines on the sea surface with high degrees of accuracy.  

Above: Schiebel’s Camcopter S-100 demonstrated two sensors that could be used in MCM at NATO's REPMUS 2023 exercise, including the Riegl VQ-840-G laser scanner, pictured here. (Photo: Schiebel) 

This could be considered for MCM operations going forward, he said, used potentially in a UAV flying ahead of a ship. This concept could be used in conjunction with LIDAR, which would be deployed to detect mines below the surface.  

LIDAR can currently scan up to a certain water depth, noted Hunter, in both shallow zones and relatively clear water. However, he said that further development and refinement of bathymetric sensors held strong potential for UAVs and for the wider MCM package.  

‘These will enable airborne and waterborne assets to scan the waters to even greater depths and with a higher level of accuracy,’ he said.  

As the first multi-domain MCM systems move from the development stage to operational reality, the addition of new UAS payloads looks set to enhance their capability further and open up fresh mission sets. 


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