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Flinders University Develops Underwater Crawler

Image Credits: Flinders University, Press Release

Teams from the Defence Science Technology (DST) Group, Flinders University, University of Sydney (USyd), University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Western Sydney University (WSU), a defence contractor based in Australia and two Australian firms gathered at Christies Beach to demonstrate capabilities of a range of novel defence equipment in the national ‘Mine Counter Measures in a Day’ Project. Among newly developed technologies showcased in the day, a mine-clearance underwater crawler developed by Flinders University was also put through its paces.

The 3.5-year, AU$15 million programme is backed jointly by and is in conjunction with the Trusted Autonomous Defence CRC, the Navy and the defence contractor’s Underwater Systems arm. The vehicles will look for mines, unexploded munitions/explosive materials and other such dangers at sea in an effort to lessen the threat they pose to vessels using the waters – be it commercial or shipping or defence forces.

The Defence SA Chief Executive recognised that collaboration is vital for innovation and the development of such cutting-edge defence technology. The project exemplifies what can be done when learning institutions and industry work closely with Defence to develop solutions to increasingly complex challenges.

Acknowledging that most demining activities are primarily carried out with specialised clearance vessels in deeper waters, the Director of the Flinders’ Centre for Defence Engineering Research and Training (CDERT) noted that divers are still needed to explore and neutralise threats in the relatively shallow and turbulent waters of the surf zone. This region has significant wave action and clouded and puts clearance divers in harm’s way. Systems designed by this project are is specifically targeted at addressing this problem and reducing risk to human life.

The aim of the MCM project is to complement and enhance current systems and procedures that form part of the exploratory Rapid Environmental Assessment (REA) of the area which currently utilises Navy Clearance Divers’ expertise. The Subsea Crawler, ultimately designed to safeguard lives, was conceived by a CDERT Team and built collaboratively with a German partner.

Swarms of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and Autonomous Surface/Subsurface Vessels (ASVs) will be designed, develop, tested and evaluated. These vehicles must be capable of autonomous mine clearance operations in the amphibious zone close to shore. The ‘littoral environment,’ as the amphibious zone is referred to, is extremely complicated and hazardous to navigate during underwater excursions looking for mines. Not only is the zone a low-visibility and low-communications environment, but the vehicles must manage tides, waves and currents

The defence contractor is the lead for the project and will facilitate the collaboration between the partners who bring their specific expertise and contributions. While Flinders is working on the Subsea Crawler, the University of Sydney (USyd) is creating a hovering autonomous underwater vehicle and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is engaged in developing the mission planning software for the swarm of vehicles.

One participating organisation is creating a small surface vehicle to operate in the surf zone, while another firm and UWS are developing the Human-Machine Interface software that will allow operators to remotely observe and manage the team of vehicles.

The Chief Technical Officer of the defence contractor was confident that the milestone development would offer the Royal Australian Navy significantly more capacity. High-risk and labour-intensive activities would be transformed by the technology and intensify mine clearance in the littoral environment. Safety will be enhanced by cutting the time needed to clear a landing zone and as well as by speedy gathering and analysing mission-critical environmental data.

The participating teams met up at the Flinders’ Maritime Lab at Flinders University to combine their individual systems which lead to combined trials at Christies Beach. The demonstration is an important milestone for the project which is in its second year and is expected to be completed by 2024.

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