Think it’s hard to find a place to charge your smartphone at the airport? Try finding a power outlet in the ocean.
Imagine you’re a robotic Navy mini-sub whose batteries are running low after a long mission monitoring, say, traffic around Chinese artificial islands in the South Pacific. Currently, you’d have to recharge at a land base or a surface ship. The former keeps you close to friendly shores while the latter gives away your presence. But if Navy program manager Mike Wardlaw makes it work, sometime in the early 2020s the Navy will start deploying unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected — and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks.
“It’s a 7-11 underwater,” for robots, said Wardlaw, the program manager for what the Office of Naval Research calls FDECO. (That stands for “Forward-Deployed Energy & Communications Outpost,” a clunker of a term we promise not to use again). Like an old-time travelling salesman stopping to get some gas and use a payphone, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way.
“The big limitations on UUVs are power and communications,” said Paul Scharre, who runs the futuristic 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. FDECO intends to help with both.