In a first for the U.S. Navy, a submarine has launched and recovered an underwater drone used in a military operation.
The attack submarine USS North Dakota returned to its base in Groton on Monday following a nearly two-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea specifically to test the drone-launching capability.
"This was something they thought we could go do," Capt. Douglas Gordon, the vessel's commanding officer, said in an interview at the base. "We went out, and we proved that."
The drone was launched from a shelter attached to the top of the Virginia class submarine that can also be used for the undersea deployment of divers and special forces. Gordon declined to provide details of the mission.
The Navy sees the drones, also known as unmanned undersea vehicles, or UUVs, as a cost-effective way to extend the reach of its submarine fleet, which has been gradually shrinking in size since the end of the Cold War.
"We can do a dual mission," Gordon said. "UUVs do their thing while we do other operations."
Navy Capt. Carl Hartsfield, a program manager for undersea capabilities, said the feat reflects the Navy's commitment to integrating unmanned vehicles. He said the vehicle deployed by the North Dakota is from a class that is readily available on the commercial market and can be reconfigured to carry a wide range of payloads.
The Navy has used unmanned vehicles to simulate enemy submarines for training purposes since the 1970s, and they also have been used to detect mines and map the ocean floor. The military has been researching how to use them more for other purposes including intelligence gathering and even anti-submarine warfare.
The development of the undersea drones has been pioneered at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island, which in 2010 launched one that navigated its own way from Newport to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in what the military called an unprecedented feat. NUWC has worked closely with private companies, academic institutions and other government agencies involved in similar research.
The drone deployed by the North Dakota was a Remus 600, a 500-pound, 10-foot-long vehicle that its maker, Hydroid, says can be equipped with video cameras, GPS devices and sonar technology. Gordon declined to say whether it was self-guided or piloted by a member of the submarine's crew.