ONR and academia devise PLUSNet,
an autonomous web of underwater robots
By AMY KLAMPER, Seapower Correspondent
A Response to Quiet Diesel Subs
Undersea mines, mini-subs and terrorist-controlled vessels also
are growing threats.
■ PLUSNet would operate independently for months, adapting
autonomously to changes in the ocean environment.
■ The Navy is developing new technologies for the network.
■ “Real-time” computing and autonomous response are essential
to its success.
■ Experiments with underwater gliders help move the project
■ A major PLUSNet experiment is planned for 2007.
As nations in Asia and the Middle East race to
acquire modern submarine technology, the
Navy expects adversaries will increasingly have
the ability to deny access to U.S. forces in key strategic
waters. With some 40 countries operating more than 400
submarines today, neutralizing the growing threat of quiet
diesel boats has become one of the service’s top priorities.
Add to this the menace of terrorist-controlled surface
ships, undersea mines, mini-subs and other threats to
U.S. military assets, and the Navy’s ability to dominate the
littoral environment becomes increasingly complicated.
In response, Navy planners hope within the next
decade to field a mobile, autonomous underwater surveillance network capable of detecting, classifying, locating
and tracking ships, submarines and other hostile objects
in the shallows. This look-and-listen grid of underwater
robots will have the ability to deploy covertly in a matter
of days, operate independently for several months and
adapt autonomously to the ocean environment.
For Rear Adm. William E. Landay III, who heads the
Office of Naval Research (ONR), imbuing underwater
vehicles with the ability to sense and independently
adapt to everything from ocean currents to hostile enemy subs is key.
“If we can sense that, get the
vehicles to understand that, get the
vehicles to adapt to that, then they
are in the position where they really
are starting to dominate the battlespace,” said Landay.
Even today, fleets of fixed-bottom
and mobile robots are mapping sections of the ocean floor in three
dimensions, operating underwater
for hours at a time, and communicating with each other in an effort to
detect and track ships and silent
submarines in the ever-changing
But the growing need for clandestine coastal surveillance calls for mobile and adaptable
sensor technologies that the Navy has yet to perfect. Part
of the challenge is to give these ocean-going robots the
ability to not only sense changes in their environment,
but communicate those changes and adapt to them in
“We can’t do that today,” Landay said. “We don’t
have the autonomy. We don’t have the ability to communicate as effectively as we need to. We don’t still
have the real-time computing.”
But the Navy sees promise in emerging technologies
in each of these areas, as well as the potential to incorporate them into a seamless capability that will one
day help the Navy dominate the undersea battlespace.
In May 2005, ONR took one of several first steps
toward this goal, asking researchers at Penn State
University to begin work on the project.
Dubbed PLUSNet, or the Persistent Littoral
Undersea Surveillance Network, the three-year, $27.7
million contract is slated to deliver its first demonstration in 2008, though the Navy does not expect the network to be fully operational until around 2015.