A radical concept for a forward-deployed network of submerged unmanned 'sleeper' payloads that could be activated after years lying dormant on the seafloor has been revealed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Known as the Upward Falling Payload (UFP) programme, the concept centres on pre-deploying deep-ocean nodes in forward areas which can be commanded from standoff to launch to the surface to deliver non-lethal effects or situation awareness over large maritime areas.
In a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) released on 11 January, DARPA describes the deep oceans - 60% of the world's seas are deeper than 4 km - as "a vast area for concealment and storage", adding that "the cost to retrieve UFP nodes is asymmetric with the likely cost to produce and distribute them on the seafloor".
The agency further pointed out that submerged concealment also provides an opportunity to surprise maritime targets from below, while the vastness of the oceans provides an opportunity to simultaneously operate across great distances. "Getting close to targets without warning, and instantiating distributed systems without delay, are key attributes of UFP capability," it said.
According to the BAA, the UFP system is envisaged to consist of three key subsystems: a payload which executes waterborne or airborne applications after being deployed to the surface; the UFP 'riser' which provides pressure tolerant encapsulation and launch of the payload; and a communications mechanism which triggers the UFP riser to launch.
Potential UFP payloads include waterborne or airborne cameras, sensors, decoys, network nodes, beacons, jammers, obscurants, or other technologies possibly hosted by mobile, drifting, station-keeping, or fixed platforms. Payloads are expected to include, and be encapsulated in, an A-size sonobuoy container vessel.
DARPA has outlined three key goals for the UFP programme: first, to demonstrate a system that can survive years of 'hibernation' under extreme pressure; second, to prove that the node can be reliably triggered to 'wake up' from standoff commands, and third, to show that the 'riser' can rapidly ascend through the water column and deploy a non-lethal payload.