The physical scale of the larger marine vessels at DSEI this year was undeniable and impressive to see. The HMS Iron Duke, for example, is a Type 23 Frigate of the Royal Navy, measuring 133 metres long and over 16m wide. However, this particular ship far from dwarfed the other 8 vessels on show, which should give an impression of the scale of DSEI’s naval exhibit.
I was fortunate enough to receive tours of a number of the vessels, visiting areas inaccessible to the general public.
The feeling of comradery among the crews was positive, allowing for open discussions leading to insights into areas such as the integrated bridge and command and control center. FGS Ludwigshafen Am Rhine, a vessel of the German Navy (Corvette K130 class), was a personal highlight. Discussions with the Navigation Officer highlighted the high quality of the systems integration and automation, which enables the vessel to operate with a relatively small crew.
Interestingly, the Officer had recently been undergoing training with the British Navy. Also, contrary to my expectations, the vessel was equipped by a number of global companies, including several from the UK. The mix of commercial, rugged and embedded solutions was eye opening, and I was intrigued by the level of redundancy required to ensure functionality in some areas. Firstly there was a failover solution, then a backup solution fixed in another area, an additional portable solution, and finally the hands-on analogue fall back which all crew are trained on in case of emergency.
HMS Tyne (River Class patrol), and the Royal Canadian Navy’s 338 Halifax class Winnipeg were also noteworthy. Although as you would expect it was not always possible to take pictures or discuss particular on-board features. The Tyne, spending much of its role patrolling fisheries as part of the Royal Navy surface fleet, displayed a greater number and more visible selection of commercial computer hardware. Some of the equipment was rackmounted, while some was fitted within specialist mounting assemblies. However, all vessels appeared to incorporate some type of commercial computing hardware, including laptops and PCs. I was able to gain insights into the hardware used for charting, and discovered that there seems to be considerable common ground between merchant and military navigation system computers.
On a slightly smaller scale, there were some very interesting watercrafts on display inside the exhibition. These included marine drones, submersibles, submersible drones, RIBs and various high speed crafts. As with many areas of defence, there were also crossover products that are more difficult to define.
One example is the HUMDINGA, a highly maneuverable, fully amphibious rescue vehicle capable of an impressive turn of speed, either on land or water. Or an interesting group of crafts called Sub-boats, exhibited by STIDD.
These are capable of covering long distances at speed on the surface, before disappearing from view for the final stretch. The boats were attributed with Diver Propulsion Devices (DVPs) for low profile surface activities of submerging. They can carry two divers and tow a further four, equipping them with greater range, speed and capability.
In terms of requirements, there was a lot to see. From an engineering perspective, it was clear that some of the greatest challenges are faced and overcome by products for marine applications. Shock and vibration, corrosion protection, immersion, size, weight and portability are the predominant challenges posed. Where suitable, the push for using commercial products will continue, however it is clear that there are visible opportunities for innovators to develop solutions for demanding applications and hostile environments.
IoT and associated sensor connectivity is now well known and gaining momentum in everyday usage, facilitating sensor connectivity and communication to the point of autonomous device interaction. One of the biggest challenges it now faces is taking connectivity beneath the waves. Finding enough bandwidth to enable real-time interaction and autonomous maintenance is the biggest challenge, but to solve it would lead to great benefits for underwater defence applications. For synchronised or complex missions, information can be shared in real time across teams. It would allow corrective actions to be taken to ensure that even in zero visibility, a team can successfully navigate underwater terrain. This will compensate for changes in current while remaining grouped and on course without the need to communicate, regain visibility or return to the surface.
Another complication to overcome is the fact that water confounds the transmission of data at frequencies commonly used for wireless communications. The ability to transmit high quality video and sensor data through water at near real-time speeds will have significant benefits for ROV and robotics applications. It would provide freedom from tethers and allow faster deployment at lower costs. In addition, eliminating the need for cables avoids the risks of tangles and drag issues, allowing greater degrees of freedom, invaluable for applications in areas such as exploration or recovery.
With greater connectivity and autonomous communication above ground and heightened demand and dependency on provision and use of computer data, there will be more expectancy for the same to be available irrespective of the environment. As a result, efforts will become increasingly focused on the biggest challenges, as well as the provision of these capabilities, even in the harshest of environments.