Navy Builds Its Own Tuna Robot

Boston TunaNorfolk, Va. —- The Navy is testing a stealthy, 4 foot-long fish-shaped autonomous underwater vehicle designed to blend in with undersea life and perform combat sensor functions, service officials explained.

The so-called “bio-memetic” undersea vehicle is currently being developed as part of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell,  or CRIC – a special unit set up by CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert in 2012 to explore the feasibility of rapidly turning around commercially available technologies for Naval military use.

“It mimics a fish. It looks like a fish. We call it robo-tuna, affectionately, but it is a UUV (unmanned undersea vehicle).  It does not have a propeller or a jet. It actually swims by flipping its tail around,” said Capt. Jim Loper, concepts and innovation department head, Navy Warfare Development Command, Norfolk.

The robot-fish is highly maneuverable and can accelerate quickly, reaching speeds up to 40 knots, Loper said. Being propelled by its tail instead of a shaft or propeller helps it remain stealthy and energy efficient. The shark-like sensor is engineered to carry a range of payloads from acoustic sensors to underwater cameras, he explained.

Built in Massachusetts by a firm called Boston Engineering, the robot fish could be used for a range of missions including undersea mine detection or prolonged surveillance of ships, ports and submarines.

“We’re imaging this can loiter for days, possibly weeks on a battery that allows it to maintain its position. This is a sensor we can put out there that matches in with the local life so to speak,” Loper added.

The UUV is currently configured with a lithium ion battery and is engineered so that its front end remains stationary in order to maximize sensor performance.

“The fact that the front portion of the animal is mainly stationary when swimming is important because when you carrying sensors, you don’t want everything moving all over the place and messing up what you are carrying on board,” Mark Smithers, vice president and chief technology officer at Boston Engineering, said in a written statement.

Another test of the robot-fish is slated for this coming December, said John Hottendorf, CRIC program manager.

“This is an empty truck. You can put whatever kind of sensor you want on it,” Hottendorf said.

Should development continue as expected, the robot-fish could wind up being ready for deployment and operational use within the next several years, Hottendorf explained.

The robot-fish UUV could, at least in theory, work well with another project currently being developed by the CRIC called Suspended Undersea Raw Fiber, or SURF.

SURF involves the use of underwater fiber optic cable used to create secure, seamless point-to-point communications possibilities for surface and undersea entities such as ships, submarines and underwater vehicles.

Navy developers with CRIC have been working closely with laboratory scientists at Penn State who have developed a special kind of buoyant fiber-optic cable.

“They have developed a way to make the fiber cable neutrally buoyant or at least able to suspend itself in the water column. The idea is to take this cable with a high data rate up to 10-gigabytes and be able to connect point to point with zero detectability.  The idea is to facilitate low observable communications so you can have high speed communications without worrying about a radio transmission being detected,” Loper said.

Some initial tests of SURF attached to a buoy off of Virginia beach have assessed the ability of the cable to withstand the wind and waves and suspend in the water column above the bottom of the ocean while not floating to the top, Loper explained.

In theory, miles of spooled out underwater fiber-optic cable could connect ships to submarines in real time, allowing them to seamlessly pass combat-relevant sensor data, he added.

“In the future when we get this thing going, you could attach a ship and a submarine. The submarine can go several miles out of the way and do what it needs to do with a cable connecting it. All of the surface and air radar from a ship can be going back to a sub. Meanwhile, a sub can be passing all of its acoustic contacts back to the ship,” he said.

The CRIC is working with prototypes of SURF at the moment while exploring ways to further ruggedize the cable for maritime use.

“The ocean environment has turned out to be a little more hostile than the original designers imagined. We want to send out 40, 50 or 60 miles of cable,” Loper said.

In addition, the SURF cable could wind up being attached to something like the robot-fish UUV, a scenario which would allow the underwater sensor to send images and data back to a submarine or ship in real time.

“You could have a sub with a fish-like UUV tethered onto a cable, giving real time feedback as opposed to current ones that come back for a download. This would be a mechanism for having real-time contact with your UUVs,” Loper explained.

Overall, the robot-fish and SURF are examples of the kind of work explored by Greenert’s CRIC, an entity designed to turn promising technologies around within a year or two for about $1 million to $2 million. The CRIC is configured solely to harvest technological innovation and is not tailored to meet a specific operational threat.

“With the CRIC, we don’t necessarily answer to current fleet needs. The CRIC as an organization is looking for opportunities. We are looking for the thing that is out there now that we don’t know we need yet. What we’re trying to do is repurpose technologies that are out in the commercial world,” Loper said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • 009

    Let’s just keep putting our secrets out there shall we!

    • Mouse C Tung

      What’s this tuna doing up the Yangtze river?
      Sorry Charlie you not fit for StarKist or even RedRobster! Kung Pao!
      Yep, great job of keeping quiet.

    • rtsy

      Pretty sure I saw the first one of these, or something similar, on TV back in the 90s.

    • Tav

      Why should we keep it a secret? Theres no point. Its better to make it public do othere countires dont overreact about the United States advancing in Naval Technology,besides,Its a non-combatant underwater drone pretty much. It doesnt pose a threat..and why not work on it to all the other people complaining? Why? we can have better communication between soldiers. It could save lives.

  • jamesb

    They have NOTHING Better to do then THIS stuff????

  • Mouse C Tung

    Seriously we should worry about keeping some bios out there to mimic.
    This type of biomimicry should be off-limits and internationally illegal for warfare purposes.
    It’s just incentive for warships to take out all biologicals.

  • mchammer

    the chicoms would probably catch it and eat it.

  • Thomas L. Nielsen

    I can’t believe I am the first one to ask this question: When will the head-mounted laser be integrated?

    Regards & all,

    Thomas L. Nielsen

    • PuresaltA1A

      Is it at least ill tempered?

      • Dfens

        No, no, no, that was sea bass, not tuna.

        • PuresaltA1A

          throw me a freaken bone here people lol

    • Rod

      Robot sharks with frikkin’ laser beams attached to their heads.

  • John Deere

    Autonomous, environment persistent, smart limpet mines… shoals of ’em.

    As Mouse C Tung said: this will lead to a seared ocean strategy in future conflict.

  • Mitch S.

    Ever since Limpet retired the Navy’s been struggling for a replacement.

    (BTW doesn’t Arthur Godfrey look/sound like he just stumbled out of a bar?)

  • josh

    Tuna? Really? I hope this is just the stuff the government is allowing to be leaked, and not the best we can come up with. I dont want to imagine our country falling because the red army decided to attach trout lines to their battle ships anf hooked all of our intel

  • hibeam

    When did the oceans become transparent? A drone disguised as a bird I could understand.

  • conradswims


  • hibeam

    Navy Builds Its Own Tuna Boat. Times are tough.

  • oblatt22

    Next time you hear a veteran complain about his benefits remind him the money went to robot tuna – should be enough.

  • C-Low

    I remember seeing this long ago on beyond 2000.

    Wasn’t it Iran a while back who claimed to have caught a zionist cat fish spying on their nuclear plant?

  • Nick

    Surely USV (Unmanned Submarine Vehicle) is a better acronym than UUV.

  • mike

    I think that Charlie the Tuna will be really pissed when he discovers this Robo-Tuna in his school of lady Tunas. And do we really need to drag out 30 to 50 miles of cable in the ocean, just to have the Eco Nuts go crazy and have more crap to accuse the Navy for. We need to work on up grading out real time communications Sub to Surface without any cable hook-ups. One more thing, you might want to pant Charlie the Robo-Tuna like the real ones. . .

  • Mouse C Tung

    Rowboats are people too, if they have money and religion. -SCOTUS

  • donphin99

    What’s stopping a shark from eating it?

    • Kodai

      smell will deter most, but I’m sure they will have some losses due to sharks, or even humans netting them.

  • Kent

    If looks & swims like a tuna, does it taste like a tuna to the shark? The shark will try to take a bite to find out. The Sea is more than just salty water.

  • osburnltd

    Robo tuna are much too big and, as others have pointed out, Japanese trawlers will be netting them like crazy. Have to miniaturize, say robo mackeral, or even robo shrimp (Ivan to Sergi, “Throw another robo shrimp on the bar bee, comrade.”). They will get into the food chain when sharks, orcas or even the occasional kraken try them out and as others mentioned, we will find them in our sushi within a few years. So much for farm raised vs caught wild.

  • Cyberemeritus

    I want to know if Robo Tuna will be covered by Obamacare.

  • Jack

    These would be force multipliers to US attack subs hunting enemy submarines.

    Provided the tech enables a good range/loiter time. The fiber optic cable connected to RoboTuna would very useful.

    RoboTuna would become RoboShark if the UUV were armed and autonomous–or semi-autonomous.

    Schools of RoboSharks could surround a carrier task force on deployment–protecting it from enemy subs. The permutations are endless if they can perfect the tech. Underwater drones are here.

  • Mouse C Tung

    Spell check. I meant “Robots are people too if they have money and religion.”
    But if they use these in the large areas of the Gulf of Mexico Pacific and Atlantic that are now biological (low-oxygen) dead zones they will stand out like a fish out of water! Other than a unique propulsion system they would only blend in with the fauna where there are fauna to blend with. There are better ideas for mimetics, best not shared in a public forum that should prove useful.