The underwater improvised explosive device (IED) represents an increasingly pernicious threat within the maritime domain. An attack on the nation’s ports and harbors using an underwater IED would have a crippling impact on the economic health and security of the nation.
Consequently, government and industry are researching and developing innovative solutions to deter, detect and interdict potential security threats to US ports. One such solution is Saab’s Sea Wasp, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) designed for disarming underwater IEDs.
Defense and security company Saab presented the Sea Wasp at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland on May 16.
Jon Kaufmann, Vice President of Naval Programs at Saab North America, Inc., told Homeland Security Today that Saab developed the Sea Wasp to counter the emerging threat of IEDs in ports and harbors.
“In the United States, there are a number of targets in the port and harbor environments, such as ships and the cruise line industry,” said Kaufmann. “Nothing really bad has happened yet—and hopefully it won’t—but if it does the Department of Defense’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO) is looking for how they might deal with it.”
Developed over a period of 18 months in collaboration with the US Underwater Hazardous Device Team, the Sea Wasp is the latest generation Saab ROV. The vehicle is piloted from the surface using a control console onboard a support vessel or from a control vehicle at a beach or harbor.
In designing the Sea Wasp, Saab aimed to take humans out of the threat situation. Kaufmann said that up until this point, a small ROV with a camera could be used to potentially locate an IED, and then an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) diver could go in and remove or disable the device.
“If you saw something with the camera on the ROV and felt strongly it was an IED, the last thing you would want to do is put a person in close proximity,” Kaufmann explained. “So the genesis of this project was really to do what we have been doing on land with IEDs for the past 15 to 20 years, and that is to use a robot to approach IEDs whenever possible.”
Although more challenging in the water than on land, advancements over the past decade have brought ROV capabilities up significantly. Saab’s Sea Wasp is operated remotely by two-person teams, allowing for a safe distance between operators and IEDs.
The vehicle features a five-function manipulator arm, which allows the operator to use a wide range of tools and techniques to disarm an IED. Additionally, it has high maneuverability, as well as the ability to hover, allowing the operator to lock the position of the vehicle and focus on using the manipulator arm without having to worry about the vehicle’s position.
The vehicle’s six thrusters provide enough power to operate in harsh conditions, including tidal currents of up to 2.5 knots. It has a maximum operating depth of 60 meters.
“The strength of this vehicle’s design is the thrust to weight ratio, the ability to hover, and the manipulator arm, which features and elbow and wrist. It can unscrew things, cut things, attach things, pick them up and move them,” said Kaufmann.
Saab has partnered with CTTSO in providing Sea Wasp prototypes to three EOD agencies: the US Navy EOD Group 2, the FBI Counter-IED Unit, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Counter-Terrorist Operations Maritime Response Unit.
In January 2016, representatives of these agencies met with a team of Saab employees from the United States, Sweden and the UK for four days of Sea Wasp training in Charleston, South Carolina. The Charleston Law Enforcement Training Center’s waterside location provided a perfect training setting, testing the vehicle’s maneuverability in the challenging harborside environment.
Since then, the agencies have been testing the Sea Wasp prototypes. Kaufmann said the company has already received some feedback and come up with a second generation of software, which will increase the voltage of the thrusters, allowing for an even higher thrust to weight ratio.
“The US unmanned underwater vehicle market is very important for Saab," said Kaufmann. “Our goal with Sea Wasp is to meet US national security needs with an underwater, anti-IED device that keeps EOD teams safe.”