DARPA moves forward with project to lay sea-based electronic ambushes for enemy naval forces

March 27, 2014
ARLINGTON, Va., 27 March 2014. U.S. military researchers are moving forward with a program to hide ruggedized electronic devices at the bottom of the world's oceans that when called on will float to the surface to jam, disrupt, and spy on enemy forces.
ARLINGTON, Va., 27 March 2014. U.S. military researchers are moving forward with a program to hide ruggedized electronic devices at the bottom of the world's oceans that when called on will float to the surface to jam, disrupt, and spy on enemy forces.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., this week released a formal solicitation (DARPA-BAA-14-27) for the second and third phases of the Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) project to hide sensors and other devices on the ocean floor that will last for as long as five years concealed at depths to 20,000 feet.

Last summer DARPA awarded UFP phase-one contracts to Sparton Electronics of De Leon Springs, Fla., and to Zeta Associates Inc. in Fairfax, Va., to develop conceptual designs of a future system with the potential to launch sensors, electronic jammers, laser dazzlers, and other devices surreptitiously and quickly in any of the world's maritime hot spots.

Sparton has notable expertise as a designer and manufacturer of the U.S. Navy's airborne sonobuoys, while Zeta designs complex communications signals collection and processing systems for the military and intelligence agencies.

Related: DARPA to develop non-lethal weapons and sensors that hide in the ocean and pop up when needed

Sparton and Zeta experts designed UFP concepts that not only would float sensors to the ocean's surface, but also potentially launch a wave of distracting light strobes, blinding lasers, electronic warfare jammers, or other kinds of non-lethal weapons able to pop up without warning in the middle of an adversary's naval battle group.

Sparton's phase-one UFP conceptual contract was worth $177,697, and Zeta's was worth $248,004. The program's second and third phases will be for much bigger money, and could attract larger contractors. The second phase will split about $21 million among three to six defense companies. The optional third phase involving an undisclosed number of companies, will be worth about $17 million, DARPA officials say.

The DARPA UFP program envisions a force of forward-deployed, non-lethal weapons and sensors armed with propellant that hides on the ocean floor and pops to the surface when needed. UFP payloads would have communications systems that enable their deployment at standoff ranges.

“The goal is to support the Navy with distributed technologies anywhere, anytime over large maritime areas. If we can do this rapidly, we can get close to the areas we need to affect, or become widely distributed without delay,” says Andy Coon, the DARPA UFP program manager. “To make this work, we need to address technical challenges like extended survival of nodes under extreme ocean pressure, communications to wake-up the nodes after years of sleep, and efficient launch of payloads to the surface.”

Related: Deep-sea sonar technology for advanced anti-submarine warfare is aim of DARPA DSOP program

The UFP system is to have three key subsystems: the 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 the UFP communications, which triggers the UFP riser to launch.

DARPA awarded phase 1 awards to Sparton and Zeta across all three technology areas with the view that these subsystems could be decoupled and separately developed. The companies determined that decoupling the riser and payload limited the ability to achieve more tailored solutions.

The second phase of the UFP program, which should be awarded in September and completed by 2016, centers on two technical areas: an integrated UFP node consisting of the riser and its payload; and UFP communications.

The UFP node should combine riser and payload such that it can survive at depths to 20,000 feet, last for as long as five years, and start working in less than two hours after commanded to launch from the seafloor. Hidden nodes should be able to provide health status on command.

Related: Precise underwater navigation with sonar is aim of Navy research contract to Penn State

UFP communications will wake and trigger UFP nodes from standoff ranges. DARPA researchers want hardware for receivers and transmitters with small size, weight, power, and cost, and permit standoff with a low-probability of intercept.

The program's second phase will involve at-sea testing. The optional third phase, which should be finished by late 2017, will integrate UFP communications and UFP nodes, and should remotely command several UFP nodes to launch working payloads from full depth. At-sea testing will be involved.

Companies interested in participating in the second and third phase of the DARPA UFP program should submit abstracts no later than 14 April 2014 online at https://stobaa.darpa.mil. Email full proposals to the same Website no later than 21 May 2014.

Email questions or concerns to DARPA at [email protected]. More information is online at https://www.fbo.gov/spg/ODA/DARPA/CMO/DARPA-BAA-14-27/listing.html.

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