The U.S. Navy launched an XFC drone from the submerged USS Providence submarine (bottom right). The drone was fired from the torpedo tube of the submarine using a launch system called Sea Robin, which is designed to fit in an empty canister normally used to deploy Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The U.S. Navy recently launched a drone from a submerged submarine, successfully demonstrating a new way for the military to use unmanned vehicles to conduct surveillance missions in the future.
The drone was fired from a torpedo tube on the USS Providence using a specially designed launch system known as "Sea Robin," according to a statement from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory detailing the test flight.
The Sea Robin system is built to fit inside an empty canister aboard the submarine, which is normally used to deploy Tomahawk cruise missiles. Once fired from the submarine, the Sea Robin launch vehicle carries the drone to the ocean surface. A submarine sailor can then command the so-called XFC drone to unfold its wings and vertically take off. [7 Technologies That Transformed Warfare]
During the recent test flight, the XFC drone flew for several hours, and beamed a live video feed back to the USS Providence and other surface support ships, according to the Naval Research Lab. The drone then landed at the Navy's Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center on Andros Island in the Bahamas.
The XFC is an electric, fuel-cell-powered drone that is capable of operating for roughly six hours, Navy officials said in a statement. The recent launch demonstration, which came after six years of development, offers new capabilities for carrying out intelligence-gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
The program was developed by the Naval Research Lab, with funding from Swampworks, the experimental research arm of the Office of Naval Research, and the Department of Defense Rapid Reaction Technology Office.
"Developing disruptive technologies and quickly getting them into the hands of our sailors is what our SwampWorks program is all about," Craig Hughes, acting director of innovation at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), said in a statement. "This demonstration really underpins ONR's dedication and ability to address emerging fleet priorities."
Submarine-launched drones could revolutionize reconnaissance operations, but the technology is still early in its development, said Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.
"It's definitely a valuable new capability, but it's not a game-changer … yet," Singer told LiveScience in an email.
Still, being able to launch drones from submarines has inherent advantages, he added.
"It extends the reach of the submarine's intelligence-gathering capabilities, in essence taking its eyes and ears farther [than ever] before, not just farther out to sea, but even inland," Singer said. "It also is useful in moving that kind of launch capability under the sea, where it's more stealth and harder to target."
Yet, there are some drawbacks, as well. The XFC drone has a shorter range than other unmanned vehicles that take off from conventional runways, or from the decks of aircraft carriers. Deploying a drone from a submerged submarine also makes the vehicle's takeoff and landing more complicated, and increases the risk of the submarine being detected, Singer added.
But, the demonstration flight shows how advanced drone technology has become, and how much these vehicles continue to change the nature of warfare.
"Unmanned systems have gone from being sci-fi to the new normal in just a few years," Singer said. "What will happen in years ahead is proliferation of [different] types of drones, proliferation of roles and uses, and gains in their intelligence and autonomy. In essence, more drones doing more roles for more people. It's not 'The Terminator' or anything like that, but still very exciting."