BAE Goes Solo Under the Sea

30 September 2009 (Last Updated September 30th, 2009 18:30)

BAE Systems has recently unveiled its latest and lightest unmanned autonomous mini submarine, Talisman L. Alex Hawkes gets an exclusive low-down on the project from the company's autonomous systems manager Andy Tonge.

BAE Goes Solo Under the Sea

Alex Hawkes: The Talisman L seems to be a major break through in the realm of autonomous submarine technology. What previous experience has BAE systems drawn upon to allow for such a development?

Andy Tonge: The family of systems the Talisman L is based upon has effectively been in development for about 20 years. Each generation has increasingly focused on our new imperative, which is to ensure assured entry into ports and harbours worldwide. Maintaining freedom of seaborne commerce is becoming a real issue in the modern market and we addressed that first with the Talisman 'M' autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) in 2007, before unveiling the new smaller Talisman L in March 2009.

We have now reached our fifth generation of underwater vehicles, and we've broken through the mindset issue that all unmanned submarines must be shaped like torpedoes. The technology has evolved significantly and we are able to offer the end-user greater capabilities. So with the Talisman L, we have complemented the existing system with a common user interface and made the AUV more easily deployable. The previous Talisman weighed over 1t, while the new model weighs just 50k and can be deployed by two men –eradicating the need for specialist handling equipment.

"We have broken through the mindset issue that all unmanned submarines must be shaped like torpedoes"

In order to complement the small vehicle, we have made sure the solutions that operate the Talisman L are equally portable. We have made a move towards the use of ruggedised laptops as remote terminals, which gives the end-user greater flexibility during an operation.

So to get back to your original statement, in some ways it's a massive jump in technology, but in another way we are simply sharing all our core systems in a much lighter vehicle.

AH: So what stage of testing is the Talisman L currently undergoing?

AT: The AUV is basically brand new and only just starting out on its testing journey. At the moment it has only been operated in our test tanks, but the next stage will be to go to our local dive training school. Such a facility is rich in targets as, for example, there will be helicopters, Land Rovers and all sorts of strange obstacles in the water.

This period of testing should be completed fairly quickly, so in a few months time we will be increasing demonstration capabilities and pushing the boundaries of what the Talisman L can do. It is one of those wonderful programmes where we are conducting the research in our own time because we want to be able to stimulate the customer community. By this I mean that they will be able to come back to us with ideas that maybe we didn't initially think of and we will then be able to add one or two sets of applications.

AH: So a strong degree of customisation and collaboration is likely to occur during this project?

AT: What we have achieved is a common core of systems that are shared on an unmanned platform, which we can rapidly tailor the external formal shape or capacity of to meet customer requirements. We will be able to achieve this as we have the right industry partnership culture already in place. For example, we have collaborated with the motor-racing industry (namely the advanced composites supplier Lola Composites) to assist us with the development of the external chaise.

AH: I understand Talisman L uses state-of-the-art sensors and detecting equipment to allow security forces to identify and neutralise explosives and other devices that may be attached to the bottom of ships, but exactly how does that function within a port or harbour environment?

AT: Really we are looking at addressing two primary missions. The first one is protecting harbours or ports from approaching vessels in the shipping lanes –deploying the Talisman L in open-water scenarios in order to offer first-line-of-port security for vital infrastructure.

The second application works within very shallow waters – namely the shipping berths of ports and harbours. The Talisman L has a very high degree of manoeuvrability and is able to hover and move in any direction within its own length, making it ideally suited to cramped and crowded inner harbour conditions.

These requirements are met through a range of sensors, which include high-definition forward and sideways looking sonar that enables the AUV to detect any suspicious items even in zero-visibility conditions. The vessel can also operate in depths of up to 100m for up to 12 hours.

AH: Considering that level of functionality, what range of defence services are interested in the project?

"Worldwide, the day of the unmanned submarine system is approaching"

AT: The Talisman L crosses the boundary between defence and security services. Its focus on maintaining accessibility to ports offers enhanced security opportunities to port authorities and gives law enforcement agencies the chance to adopt technology for surveying illicit cargoes under the hold of ships. Yet the level of technology employed by the UAV makes it equally at home with the high demands of the naval defence sector.

AH: When do you expect orders for the Talisman L?

AT: Traditionally the customer community we deal with takes time to process procurement programmes and we are quite happy to have a long-haul perspective as we are offering a capability that the market needs. We have a series of business opportunities in BAE's home and export markets that we are pursuing, and certainly the full-scale Talisman L mock-up we had on show at the DSEi conference in London recently attracted a lot of interest.

Worldwide, the day of the unmanned submarine system is approaching and there are a number of international competitors which feel they have a role to play in this market. None of these, however, can offer a package solution like the one we have in place.