Further details emerged on a mysterious unmanned aircraft spotted off Florida last week that I wrote about on Monday. We soon realized that the medium is a Wave Glider made by Boeing
Many commentators have noted that the array of dipole antennas suggested a configuration for searching for direction, one for detecting and identifying the source of radio transmissions. Twitter submarine expert @ Johann_U96 identified the exact model: is the SeaWatch system produced by the maritime surveillance company ThayerMahan.
SeaWatch is an autonomous surveillance package integrated with an unmanned surface ship, which offers long-lasting capabilities, staying at sea for months to monitor “illegal activity”. While the website is cautious about exactly what “interest targets” are being tracked, the Florida location suggests that smuggling may be involved. The website mentions that the system recently successfully completed an 84-day mission for an unnamed US government customer.
While ThayerMahan is careful not to mention the Wave Glider by name, a 2017 interview with his CEO, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mike Connor, shows him standing next to a Wave Glider during sea trials off the coast of Hawaii and speaking of the company’s collaboration with Liquid Robotics and their previous Outpost sensor system are based on a Wave Glider.
The system can monitor multiple radio frequency bands simultaneously, automatically recording each transmission and storing them for analysis without any human intervention. All signals of interest are relayed directly to Thayer Mahan’s headquarters in Groton, Connecticut for further analysis.
Legally operated ships must have an automatic identification system, a transponder that provides details and locations for ships to prevent collisions. Smugglers and others will disable their AIS so that they cannot be traced. If SeaWatch detects radio transmissions from a point that does not correspond to an AIS track, they know they have potential illegal activity. They can receive communications with other ships or communications with crew members on the same ship or from the ship’s radar. (The same type of maritime snooping can now be performed from space, with systems such as the Hawkye 360 startup trio of miniature Hawk satellites.) Of course, it could also spot submarines if they approach the surface to communicate via buoys via radio.
The SeaWatch system was probably included in Thayer’s $ 19.4 million contract with the United States Navy, awarded in July 2019, to develop innovative autonomous systems for collecting information. But the antenna you can see above the surface is the tip of the iceberg. There is also a lot to do underwater.
In September 2019, ThayerMahan pledged to purchase KATFISH towed sonar systems from Kraken Robotics. It is an advanced sonar system for seabed imaging, which provides 30 times more detail than conventional lateral scan sonar, resolving objects of just over an inch in diameter. KATFISH can be towed by unmanned ships such as the Wave Glider. Again, one can speculate how such a system could be useful in the fight against traffickers who leave drug bases anchored on the seabed for recovery or in other activities.
Such Wave Glider platforms can also have many other sensor features. The Navy’s plan to conduct tests with 20 SHARCs working together suggests that we are fast approaching the future when the sea is constantly full of eyes and ears floating on the station, keeping an eye not only on enemy submarines but also offenders.