The Royal Navy has unveiled a series of futuristic submarine concepts which mimic real marine lifeforms and radically change the way underwater warfare could look in 50 years.
With a crewed mothership shaped like a manta ray, unmanned eel-like vessels equipped with sensor pods which dissolve on demand to avoid enemy detection, and fish-shaped torpedoes sent to swarm against enemy targets, these concepts aim to inspire the world’s future underwater combat environment.
The UK’s brightest and most talented young engineers and scientists came up with the designs after being challenged by the Royal Navy to imagine what a future submarine would look like and how it would be used to keep Britain safe in decades to come.
The whale shark/manta ray-shaped mothership would be built from super-strong alloys and acrylics, with surfaces which can morph in shape. With hybrid algae-electric cruising power and propulsion technologies including tunnel drives which work similarly to a Dyson bladeless fan, the submarine could travel at unprecedented speeds of up to 150 knots.
Commander Peter Pipkin, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Robotics Officer, said: “With more than 70 per cent of the planet’s surface covered by water, the oceans remain one of the world’s great mysteries and untapped resources.
“It’s predicted that in 50 years’ time there will be more competition between nations to live and work at sea or under it. So it’s with this in mind that the Royal Navy is looking at its future role, and how it will be best equipped to protect Britain’s interests around the globe.
“Today’s Royal Navy is one of the most technologically advanced forces in the world, and that’s because we have always sought to think differently and come up with ideas that challenge traditional thinking. If only 10 per cent of these ideas become reality, it will put us at the cutting edge of future warfare and defence operations.”
This mothership would be capable of launching unmanned underwater vehicles shaped like eels, which carry pods packed with sensors for different missions. These pods can damage an enemy vessel, or dissolve on demand at the end of an operation to evade detection.
The project, named Nautilus 100, was set up to mark the 100th anniversary of the launch of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.
Rear Admiral Tim Hodgson, the Ministry of Defence’s Director of Submarine Capability, said: “We want to encourage our engineers of the future to be bold, think radically and push boundaries. From Nelson’s tactics at the Battle of Trafalgar to Fisher’s revolutionary Dreadnought battleships, the Royal Navy’s success has always rested on a combination of technology and human skill.
“The pace of global innovation is only going to increase, so for the UK to be a leader in this race it needs to maintain its leadership in skills and technology. Hopefully this project has inspired the next generation of British scientists to be bold in their ambitions and I congratulate them for their inspiring work.”
Young British scientists and engineers from UKNEST, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes science, engineering and technology for UK naval design, answered the challenge. More than 20 of them took part in the project, ‘visioneering’ a new submarine fleet for the future Royal Navy.
Gemma Jefferies, 21, from Bristol, is an engineering assistant with L3 Marine Systems UK. Gemma, who took part in the project, said: “It was amazing to see a whole manner of disciplines coming together in this project. It was great to let our imaginations run with crazy ideas, some that may not actually be considered science fiction in the near future.”
Unlike the submarines of today, which perform multiple roles in one hull, it is envisaged that the Royal Navy of the future would operate a family of submarines of various shapes and sizes, both manned and unmanned, to fulfill a variety of tasks.
The science and engineering graduates and apprentices, aged 16-34, took the complex systems required by an advanced submarine and applied the latest technological ideas to make them easier to construct, cheaper to run, and more deadly in battle.
The concepts in detail
1. The Nautilus 100 mothership
The young engineers behind Project Nautilus 100 visualised a future submarine with a whale shark-styled mouth and manta ray body, allowing a combination of speed and stealthiness unmatched by today’s technology.
Role: When looking at the role of the vessel, it became clear that a ‘mothership’ type submarine was needed to act as a major command and control hub, information collector and disseminator, weapon carrier, and underwater flagship.
Build: Its 3D-printed hull would be a combination of light but strong acrylic materials bonded to super strong alloys capable of withstanding the extreme pressure of depths of 1000m or more.
Sound: Anechoic coatings, which deaden sound and reduce enemy submarines’ sonar returns, would be created with nanometre-thin graphene scales which would be layered to create an outer skin. The scales would be bonded together with a piezoelectric material allowing dynamic control of the scales. This would allow real-time alignment of the scales to reduce drag in transit and absorb sound during silent operations.
Crew: The mothership would have a reduced crew of around 20 people, capable of brain-computer control of the submarine’s command system. This allows control of multiple systems by the power of thought. They would live on board in comfortable surroundings for weeks or months at a time, undertaking missions then docking with underwater space stations located at strategic points in UK controlled waters around the world.
Propulsion: There would be two propulsion systems – one for silent and efficient cruising for thousands of miles at up to 30 knots, and the other for short bursts of high speed in a ‘fight or flight’ scenario. Powered in cruise mode by hybrid algae-electric propulsion, the final drive would use a large-scale tunnel drive that works similarly to a Dyson bladeless fan. It would suck water in through the bow (front) and then expel it smoothly from the stern (back). Precise control of depth and direction is achieved by flexible wing tips which use biomimicry – technology which uses nature as a model for human innovations – to alter their shape.
In battle situations, where high speed is necessary, the mothership would be powered for short bursts by a Casimir force battery, which uses zero point energy to produce enormous power. The submarine would be cloaked in a supercavitating bubble of air, reducing drag, and enabling it to be boosted to speeds of up to 150 knots. The air pocket would be formed by bubbles created by laser emitters which boil the water in front of the submarine. Outlets, which look like gills, stabilise and direct the flow over the submarine’s entire surface.
Weapons and sensors: The mothership would have advanced multi-spectral, low power, active and passive sensors moulded into its hull to help hunt for enemy vessels. A recovery bay in the underside would act as a docking station for the transfer of people, weapons payloads and general stores, and weapons bays integrated into the top of the submarine. The payload bays would be multifunctional, holding a variety of weapons and sensors, plus conventional torpedo tubes for self-defence decoys which can be 3D-printed on board.
2. The Eel Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV)
These eel-like UUVs would be the main sensors and secondary weapons carriers launched from the weapons bays on top of the mothership. Capable of complete autonomy, they could travel hundreds of miles in near silence using an eel-like sine wave propulsion motion. This disguises them as real marine lifeforms in the eyes of an enemy’s sensors.
Their main purpose would be to eject individual sensor pods, each using blue-green laser energy to communicate, forming a self-meshing underwater network with secure command and control hundreds of miles apart. These multi-purpose sensors would also listen for residual sound energy or electro-magnetic disturbances, sharing vast amounts of data using artificial intelligence to provide battle-winning automated assessment and decision making for defensive and offensive operations.
3. Dissolve-on-demand micro drones
The eel UUVs would be equipped with a variety of micro drones, made from cold saltwater-soluble polymers like the liquid capsules used in your washing machines. They can be released in blooms, and communicate with each other and the eels, providing detail reconnaissance of targets.
The pods can produce a constant supply of sensors and drone swarms via 3D printers which would gather biological material from the ocean and use it to build new sensors. These micro drones can play a role in escort duties when the Royal Navy is required to shadow foreign submarines or vessels detected in British waters. The micro drones would follow and escort them until they were back in international waters.
They would be engineered to dissolve after a predetermined period of time, so if deployed in enemy waters they would be undiscovered. The drones would also have adhesive properties in their semi-dissolved state, and could be directed to enemy ships to block their uptakes and intakes, rendering the vessels inoperative.
4. Flying fish swarm drones
Flying fish drones replace traditional torpedo and missile systems and provide an adaptable weapon effective against ships, submarines and land targets. They have interchangeable payloads which could include shockwave emitters, electromagnetic pulses, cluster missiles or individual warheads.
They would use their wings to fly close to the surface and then dive below the water, using fins to stay close to the top. This means they can always operate right on the surface of the waves, an area which radar systems struggle to identify threats due to the choppy sea surface and noisy underwater areas.
If an enemy radar locks on to a flying fish drone above the surface, it can immediately dive underwater, emerging back to the surface if detected by underwater sonar. Powered by microturbines in the air, their intake and exhaust vents would open and close as they dive back into the water to then be powered by plasma batteries.