naval drones: control the threat, capitalize on the opportunities

The Ukrainian war, the Red Sea attacks, gas pipelines, submarine cables, drug trafficking… In recent years, the emergence of naval drones, whether underwater, surface or airborne, has changed the nature and origin of threats to our maritime spaces. Coastal states are therefore called upon to adapt their approach to maritime surveillance. But these new tools also represent an opportunity to ensure wider, more discreet and less costly surveillance of areas far from their exclusive economic zone.

I. The challenges of maritime defense and security

Struggle for influence

The geopolitics of the oceans have been the subject of intense conflict and confrontation for decades. The five oceans, representing 70% of the Earth’s surface, are a key strategic area for international actors. These strategic zones are host to a vast range of food resources (fisheries) and marine energy resources (oil and gas, offshore wind power). The oceans are also zones of significant maritime traffic, with “maritime roads” including the Transpacific, the Transatlantic and the Asia-Europe axis. An estimated 80% of products are transported on these maritime roads. They are physically linked to each other by international straits and passages, through which thousands of ships circulate freely without hindering the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Finally, 99% of the world’s data traffic (Internet and telephony) is carried by submarine cables.

These maritime areas are strategic zones. They represent major geopolitical issues, with territorial claims, resource conflicts and international tensions. Maritime defense is vital to every nation in order to protect and secure its own interests.

Carte des routes maritimes, grands passages et zones stratégique du commerce international
©F. Turbout, MRSH Caen, Université de Caen Normandie, 2020

Asymmetric threats

The vast expanses of the oceans provide an ideal environment for terrorist groups to carry out their illegal activities. Trafficking in arms, drugs and people, as well as direct attacks on civilian and military vessels, piracy, hostage-taking at sea and hijacking, are all manifestations of this persistent threat. Terrorist groups also exploit weaknesses in port infrastructure and security systems, jeopardizing national economies and regional stability.

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II. New technologies

The deployment of broadband networks at sea will enable ultra-fast, reliable communications between land and drones (surface and airborne), even when they are far from the coast. Today, Starlink is poised to revolutionize communications with land. The multiplicity of satellites offers ever-greater coverage and increases the reliability of connected solutions.
Interface Starlink
©Starlink interface

Advanced detection systems

New-generation sonar sensors and underwater listening systems enable precise detection of potential threats, even in acoustically complex environments. These are groundbreaking technologies for which THALES has the know-how and confidence of the French Navy. There are currently 2 types of sonar: passive and active. Passive sonar is designed to listen to the sounds of the sea. The second, active sonar, emits waves that reflect off surfaces, enabling the distance and shape detected to be estimated. Sonar complementarity is essential in the face of innovations from stealthy submarine manufacturers.

Acoustic sensors under development: hydrophones

Hydrophones play an essential role in maritime safety by providing advanced underwater detection capabilities. These sensitive devices are designed to pick up sound signals underwater, enabling constant monitoring of maritime activities. Hydrophones are used to detect sonar emissions from military submarines, to monitor ship movements, or even to detect the presence of oil slicks following spills. They are also used in tsunami early warning systems, as they can detect the powerful underwater seismic waves that precede these devastating events. All in all, hydrophones are crucial tools in tune with maritime safety needs.

Naval drones

Aerial drones

The maritime transposition of the land-based aerial drone, this is undoubtedly the most mature technology on the market. Aerial drones, which look like helicopters, take up the challenge of remote piloting and extreme precision in automatic docking on surface vessels in all sea states. Innovations may lie in improved autonomy, connectivity or cybersecurity.
Use cases: Thanks to these functionalities, they can closely monitor maritime activities, detect suspicious vessels, and even assist rescue operations in the event of an emergency. Other applications include inspection and maintenance, cetacean detection, pollution detection, etc.

Exemple :

Schiebel’s COMCOPTER® S-100 industrial drone is a benchmark in aerial drone design. It is currently being tested and developed with Thales and the Royal Navy for factory acceptance (FAT) and wider deployment with the armed forces.

Drone – ©Schiebel CAMCOPTER® S-100

Surface drones

Called “Unmanned Surface Vessel” (USV), these drones are autonomous vessels equipped with advanced navigation and detection technologies. They are capable of operating autonomously while complying with international maritime regulations. These unmanned vessels represent a major advance in the maritime world. These surface drones are very discreet and difficult to detect by radar.

Use cases: Used as early as the Second World War as a remotely operated target vehicle and minesweeper, today they are used more in oceanography and environmental monitoring, as well as in freight transport and military applications. Various other applications are also being explored.

Exemple :

The “DriX” is a hydrophobic surface-supervised UAV (USV) designed for maritime mapping in French waters. In the future, it will be offered for military applications. “DriX has proven to be a real game-changer. (…) The defense world has quickly identified it as a real asset with high added value that ensures the safety of crews”, explains iXblue.
Photo drone de surface DriX
DriX Surface drones (© IXBLUE)

Underwater drone

Underwater drones are capable of operating autonomously at depths of several hundred meters. They are the most complex to implement due to technical obstacles such as energy management and limited underwater communication. These vehicles, remotely controlled and sometimes totally isolated from all communications with Earth, are totally autonomous. They are therefore pre-programmed with a precise mission, a target to be reached, a zone to be covered, and so on.
Use cases: Underwater drones will cover various missions on a variety of strategic points. These range from port infrastructures, bridges, dikes, dams, pipelines, locks and offshore structures. These camera- and sonar-equipped underwater drones will be able to inspect the submerged parts of structures and detect any damage.

Exemple :

FlatFish, developed by SAIPEM, is an advanced underwater drone capable of autonomously carrying out complex inspections of subsea assets across the entire underwater domain, thanks to its integrated artificial intelligence, advanced navigation functions and payload-based modularity.

Flatfish de Saipem
Drone Flatfish ©Saipem

III. Disruptive innovations – Imagining future innovations

The future of maritime safety looks bright, with many technological and technical innovations set to improve safety at sea. Here’s a look at some of the future advances expected in this field:

Using the Internet of Things (IoT) for environmental and marine monitoring

“IoT” sensors will be used more widely to monitor the water through dense meshing. These require a connection and extensive Internet broadcasting off the coast. It is also a major energy challenge to ensure a continuous connection and therefore a reliable data reading in real time. At present, projects such as PRACTI SEAS, led by Quimper-based Kenta , are underway. Its aim is to standardize the use of IoT on all ships in order to develop a more reliable network.

GEPS Techno

These future technological and technical innovations will contribute to enhancing maritime safety, protecting the marine environment, and improving the security of maritime operations. It is in this context that GEPS Techno strives to develop innovative technologies. Solutions that meet the challenges of energy production in isolated environments, in line with France’s maritime safety strategy. Since July 2023, the design office has been working to answer the following questions: How to detect drones on the surface, in the air and under the sea? Or, how can these new systems be deployed in the open sea over the long term?
These sonar technologies, innovative sensors, docking stations and submarine/airborne/surface drones all need a power supply to operate, as well as a high-speed communication link. These technical solutions must operate continuously to meet maritime safety requirements. At a distance from the coast, they cannot be powered and run on fuel, requiring human recharging. We therefore need to find an energy-producing, autonomous solution capable of storing this energy and retransmitting it in a continuous stream to power these sensors.

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