The French defence procurement agency (DGA) has awarded DCNS, Thales and ECA a major study contract that is expected to lead, around 2011, to a demonstrator of a new mine countermeasures solution dubbed Espadon*.
Today, mine countermeasures (MCM) is typically performed by dedicated vessels known as minehunters. MCM operations expose minehunter crews to considerable danger due to the simple fact that these vessels operate in known mine fields.
With many navies expected to renew their MCM systems over the coming decade, DCNS, Thales and ECA have put forward a joint solution using a type of naval drone known as an unmanned surface vehicle. USVs offer the key benefit of keeping minehunter crews out of harm's way.
The Espadon solution comprises a minehunter, two USVs and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). While remaining at all times at a safe distance from the mine field, the minehunter or similar dedicated vessel will deploy and control the USVs, each programmed specifically to operate in mine fields. The USVs, in turn, will deploy AUVs, a smaller and completely autonomous type of subsea naval drone carrying sensors and robotic devices to detect and neutralise naval mines. On completing their mission, the AUVs return to the USVs and the USVs to the mother vessel.
With Espadon, DCNS, Thales and ECA will be the first team in the world to evaluate USVs deploying AUVs for full-scale mine countermeasures.
The Espadon studies will be shared in such a way as to ensure that each partner contributes its specific expertise in MCM.
In addition to acting as the lead contractor to the DGA for the overall project, DCNS is responsible for the USV platform and the interface with the mother vessel.
Thales is responsible for the USV, MCM outfitting and the sensor module, comprising an AUV and a towed sonar for mine detection, identification and location. Thales is also responsible for communications between the different components.
ECA is responsible for the design and development of the autonomous underwater vehicles, the AUV launch and recovery system and the USV remote control system.
* ESPADON (Évaluation de Solutions Potentielles d'Automatisation de Déminage pour les Opérations Navales) or evaluation of potential solutions for the automation of mine clearing for naval operations.