Underwater drones, or Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) are nothing new in subsea security. But that didn’t stop French manufacturer Thales from creating a sensation at the Euronaval trade fair with a beast of a different stripe: the Autonomous Underwater & Surface System (AUSS). This elegantly designed drone can not only carry out underwater missions—inspecting offshore oil installations, for instance—but also can operate at the surface by positioning itself vertically and deploying a mast above the water.
We interviewed Jean-François Ghignoni, Marketing Director for Underwater Systems at Thales to learn more.
NauticExpo e-Magazine: When did the project begin and how did you get the idea for this new type of drone?
Jean-François Ghignoni: The project began in 2012. Thales already had significant experience with underwater minewarfare AUVs, and we thought such unmanned systems could have other applications, including civilian ones. We recognized that they had two major shortcomings: lack of surface capability and limited maneuverability. We put on our thinking caps and asked ourselves what kinds of innovations we could put into the next generation. In the end, we came up with a dozen innovations.
NauticExpo e-Magazine: The AUSS can turn around in less than 10 meters. What gives it such great maneuverability?
Jean-François Ghignoni: Its propulsion system works without fins. I can’t go into the details of the technology due to confidentiality issues. What I can tell you is that our drone doesn’t need to be moving through the water to maneuver. It also has a dynamic buoyancy control system.
Monitoring Underwater Infrastructure
NauticExpo e-Magazine: What sets it apart is that it can operate at the surface as well as underwater.
Jean-François Ghignoni: Yes. Its ability to deploy a mast at the surface makes possible coastal surveillance without deploying visible means such as aircrafts or boats, in other words, discreetly. At the same time, the AUSS can monitor underwater infrastructure, for example for the oil industry. It differs from an ROV, which is controlled by the crew of a surface ship.
Our system was designed for maneuverability and extended mission capability. If you have recharging systems, you can do without 80% of the vessels previously required.
If you have recharging systems, you can do without 80% of the vessels previously required.
NauticExpo e-Magazine: What’s its range?
Jean-François Ghignoni: Today, it can operate for two weeks over 50 nautical miles. For example, an AUSS can extend its mast for a while, shoot a video and then stand by at depth.
A 17 Knots Speed
NauticExpo e-Magazine: The AUSS has a top speed in excess of existing underwater drones.
Jean-François Ghignoni: The prototype can reach 17 knots, and we expect to reach 20 knots. Limited speed is a drawback of existing AUVs, which top out at about 6 knots.
NauticExpo e-Magazine: How does the AUSS communicate with shoreside systems?
Jean-François Ghignoni: This is an important issue that must be discussed with our clients. It’s perfectly possible to imagine incorporating a compact satellite communications system. We’re also looking at line-of-sight radio communications solutions. Another possibility is a link to aircraft, similar to communications with sonor buoys.
NauticExpo e-Magazine: Will the AUSS have built-in intelligence?
Jean-François Ghignoni: Since 2009-10 we’ve launched AUVs with mission-specific intelligence. We spend a lot of time working on this to find an algorithm that makes the system autonomous. We think the level of autonomy will evolve, as is the case in the automobile industry.
The Benefits of Design
NauticExpo e-Magazine: When can we expect to see a completely operational AUSS?
Jean-François Ghignoni: Today’s AUSS is a prototype developed over the course of three years. Everything will depend on client requests. We expect to see the first operational system in three or four years.
NauticExpo e-Magazine: The AUSS has a particular look.
Jean-François Ghignoni: Yes. We wanted to differentiate our drone visually. We brought in a designer after two or three sea trials. He changed not only the color, but also the shape of the drone.
It really surprised us when the new configuration performed better than the initial one. There was close collaboration with the engineers. This could be the first time that external system or equipment design led to such an improvement.