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Friday, May 20, 2016

A 'GPS' for undersea vessels

by Mark Ollig

Copyright © 2016 Mark Ollig

A concern exists with sending military submarines, deep-sea vessels, and autonomous underwater vehicles beneath the ocean’s surface.

They are unable to use the satellite GPS (Global Positioning System).

GPS satellites orbiting our planet at an altitude of approximately 12,600 miles transmit radio signals to the Earth’s surface at the speed of light.

These satellites provide the military (and us) with continuous ‘round-the-planet surface location coverage.

Unfortunately, a GPS radio signal is unable to travel through seawater to reach submerged vessels.

They occasionally need to rise to the surface in order to get an accurate GPS “fix” on their location.

One risk associated with an undersea vessel coming to the surface includes the opportunity for a potential enemy to detect it.

Even if it remains in shallow water and raises its mast or radio-signal receiver pole above the water’s surface to obtain GPS signaling, it still risks detection.

Another obstacle an undersea vessel may face when surfacing, is having its reception of satellite GPS signals intentionally blocked or jammed.

Underwater vessels are able to stay submerged while tracking their location using undersea navigational sensors, DVL (Doppler Velocity Log), and computing devices equipped with navigation grade IMU (Inertial Measurement Units).

Nevertheless, these methods will not reliably keep track of an undersea craft’s precise location over long periods.

Occasions arise when the location algorithmic guidance data being used as a reference needs to be “refreshed and updated” using the precise and accurate triangulated tracking information obtained by the satellite GPS.

The monetary costs, along with the internal power requirements an underwater vessel expends for using state-of-the art, undersea navigational sensors are, according to information I’ve read: “significant.”

To save time, money, and possible intentional attack upon underwater vessels, the US military wants to install a system similar to today’s satellite GPS network under the oceans’ surface.

The US Department of Defense solicited classified and unclassified research proposals for their Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation (POSYDON) program under DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

POSYDON calls for an “omnipresent and robust” underwater location positioning system, using a number of “acoustic sources” or devices analogous to GPS satellites.

By having an array of underwater acoustic or sounding source-devices acting similar to the platform used with the current satellite GPS, undersea vessels will be able to maintain accurate location positioning without the need for surfacing.

The 48-month POSYDON program is modeled into three phases:

1. A preliminary design focused on signaling processing and ocean modeling.

2. Developing and validating a real-time acoustic ranging capability.

3. A demonstration of real-time positioning, an integrated system demonstration, and validation of all POSYDON components by US Government team members.

The first phase began 12 months ago.

DARPA states the implementation of the POSYDON program will comply with “all applicable laws and regulations protecting marine life, including Executive Order 12114, Endangered Species Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

For those who are curious, Executive Order 12114: Environmental Effects Abroad of Major Federal Actions, was signed on Jan. 4, 1979, by President Carter.

I, for one, am glad the government made GPS available to the public.

As yours truly wrote in February 2013; “Originally, GPS started out as being used exclusively for the US military.

That changed in May 2000, when President Clinton ordered the US military to stop scrambling the signals coming from the GPS satellite network. This allowed GPS navigational information to become available for all of us.”

As I conclude this week’s column, I acknowledge appreciation for having GPS in my car.

Without it, I would still be stopping at gas stations to ask directions.

I also value the time GPS saves me from trying to correctly refold the paper highway map so it can neatly fit back into the glove compartment.

Will a future underwater navigational system become available to the public, like the existing satellite GPS?

The official response given in the POSYDON research solicitation’s Q&A paper is: “Unknown at this point.”

The US Government informational GPS website is:

You can easily locate this above-the-water columnist on Twitter via my @bitsandbytes handle.

Above photo taken from:

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sometimes technology gets it right

by Mark Ollig

Copyright © 2016 Mark Ollig

This past Mother’s Day, I, along with other family members, were in Winsted, MN visiting with my mom.

One of my mom’s granddaughters lives out of state, on the west coast, and was unable to visit in person.

However, the distance apart did not prevent them from seeing and talking with each other.

My niece, who was also visiting, used modern-day technology to bring them both together.

She placed a video phone call using a software app (application) on her cellphone.

With the display screen and camera of the cellphone held in front of my mother, she smiled upon seeing the face of her granddaughter, as they both talked and acknowledged each other’s facial expressions.

The video call was placed using Apple’s FaceTime app.

Today, more people are commonly using FaceTime and other video-calling apps for placing face-to-face video phone calls.

I say commonly, because my niece made the video call so effortlessly; more or less the same as placing a voice call.

Video-voice calling technology has been around for many years.

It was seven years ago when I placed my first video call – but it was not over a cellphone.

This call was to my oldest son, who at the time was taking classes at the Academia de Bella Arte School in Florence, Italy.

Skype is the name of the video-voice conferencing program I had downloaded onto my desktop computer.

This video call was placed over the Internet, and to my surprise, everything worked very well.

On my computer’s display monitor, a smaller screen appeared in the upper right-hand corner showing the live camera view from my son’s laptop; which, of course, was pointed at him.

I smiled while looking into the camera on my computer, and cheerfully said; “Hello, Mathew!”

He smiled back; the video quality was surprisingly good.

While we talked, he gave me a panoramic view of the café in Florence where he was having coffee.

The café looked very inviting. I could see its many patrons seated at tables, drinking coffee.

Mathew’s laptop was using the Wi-Fi connection to the Internet from the café, which was some 4,750 miles away from where I was located in Minnesota.

During the 1964 World’s Fair, the Bell System’s (AT&T) highly-anticipated Picturephone presentation took place.

The Picturephone used a video camera, monitor screen, a push-button or touchtone telephone (which in 1964 was impressive in itself), audio speakers, and a power supply.

The video camera inside the Picturephone used a Plumbicon tube, which I learned was commonly found in commercial television broadcasting cameras.

In an archived demonstration video, I noted the sound and video quality of the Picturephone was very good; the real-time visual of the person seen on the monitor screen appeared in black-and-white.

The people using it looked to be both amused and delighted upon seeing the person they were speaking with over the video telephone.

Picturephone video booths were installed in a few city test markets in 1965; however, the cost of placing a video call was very expensive, and having to physically place the call away from one’s home or business, proved unpopular with the public.

By 1968, most of the Picturephone booths were no longer in use.

I uploaded a photograph of the reportedly first videophone call using the Picturephone, from April 20, 1964.

It can be seen on my Photobucket webpage:

I digress back to Mother’s Day, recalling my mom’s smiles from not only hearing her granddaughter’s voice on the cellphone, but being able to see her over its display screen, as well.

“It was the first time I could see the person I was talking with over the phone,” mom cheerfully told me.

During the 1940s, my mother was a telephone switchboard operator.

I smiled back at her and thought; “Sometimes, technology gets it right.”

Follow me via the social media network Twitter, at @bitsandbytes.

Friday, May 6, 2016

US Navy launches autonomously-controlled ship

by Mark Ollig

We have autonomous, self-directing drones flying in the sky, so why not have autonomously controlled ships traversing the oceans of the world?

The good folks at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, in cooperation with the US Navy, work in a program called: Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV).

This program unites autonomous technologies with a sonar system, mine-sweeping technology payloads, and anti-submarine warfare tracking capabilities.

They added all these technologies within a prototype naval ship’s operating platform.

The newly-built ship is an advanced surface vessel designed for mission durations lasting months, and covering thousands of miles – without requiring a human crew onboard.

This unmanned, independently-operating craft includes collision-avoidance software.

It is designed to maneuver and perform complicated missions using what DARPA calls a “sparse remote supervisory control model.”

A human operator is able to monitor, control, and send course destination commands remotely to the ship via a satellite communications link, as well as line-of-sight radio.

The $20 million prototype was first placed in the water near its construction site in Portland OR, Jan. 27.

The US Navy and DARPA officially christened this new, 132-foot autonomously operated, robotic prototype naval vessel April 7.

The ship was given the name Sea Hunter.

It’s equipped with radar and cameras, and is able to search for enemy submarines; however, it is unarmed if it does come across one.

Sea Hunter includes an Automated Identification System, which is able to detect and identify any vessel over 300 tons, broadcasting its position and classification.

The ship weighs about 140 tons under a full load displacement (including 40 tons of fuel), and is powered by two diesel engines.

Sea Hunter is capable of reaching speeds of around 31 miles per hour (or 27 knots for our yacht-sailing readers).

Future technology “on-ramps” have been taken into account, allowing future-designed sensors and technological payloads to be added to Sea Hunter’s software architecture, and its autonomy system.

Yours truly was not invited to Portland to attend Sea Hunter’s christening ceremony, so I watched DARPA’s recorded video highlights of the event.

This ceremony was performed in front of about 100 invited guests, including senior US Navy and government officials.

“What we’ve created together with the Navy is a truck that can carry more payload over greater distances, stay out longer, be more capable than anything else, and do it highly autonomously because it’s a big vessel and it’s got that flexibility,” said Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager for ACTUV.

Rear Admiral Robert Girier, director, Unmanned Warfare Systems, said the Sea Hunter “heralds the look and shape of things to come.”

“Now, we can actually start exploring with the Navy what really can be possible, when you have an unmanned vessel of this sort,” said Arati Prabhakar, DARPA director.

US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Work said this is the first time the US Navy ever had a “totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship.”

Sea Hunter represents an “incredible innovation,” he added.

Work suggested autonomous ships signify; “A human-machine collaborative battle fleet that will confound our enemies.”

During the ceremonial christening, a bottle of (non-alcoholic) champagne was broken across the bow of the impressive-looking Sea Hunter, by Arati Prabhakar.

“It’s my privilege and honor to christen thee Sea Hunter!” she proclaimed before striking the front part of the ship with the bottle.

The ship’s short-term testing will temporarily include having a human being onboard as a back-up, to ensure the autonomy system is performing correctly.

The testing of Sea Hunter’s capabilities is planned to last through 2018.

Sea Hunter will incur daily operating expenses totaling $15,000 to $20,000, based upon a cost model Scott Littlefield mentioned during an April 6 press briefing.

DARPA posted a video to YouTube showing Sea Hunter cruising in the water near Portland at:

A photo of Sea Hunter can be seen here:

Check out this amazingly detailed DARPA time-lapsed video showing the construction, walkthrough, and brief voyage of Sea Hunter:

Here’s a high-quality DARPA video showing Sea Hunter’s maneuverability testing on the water as seen from the air:

DARPA’s official website is: 

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