The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is gaining substantial strategic relevance in the 21st century. An increasing number of IOR nations as well as extra-regional powers now maintain their strategic presence in the region and deploy their assets to both, claim the rich undersea resources, and maintain national security interests, in the region.
This sudden and unregulated rise in maritime activities can cause serious damage to the IOR’s marine ecosystem. There is also a fit case to ensure reliable systems for early warning of natural disasters. Science and technology will always remain the driver for sustainable development and hence, we must take efforts to understand the underwater domain to achieve safe, secure, and sustainable growth for all in the region.
The political, economic, and technological challenges in the IOR are unique. Volatile political realities ensure lack of synergy among IOR nations, allowing extra-regional powers to meddle with their internal matters. Pre-modern states with weak governance structures allow non-state actors to actively operate and disrupt peace and harmony.
Socio-economic conditions in these nations is less than optimal, and this limits the size of infrastructural and other economic projects and their use of state-of-the-art technology. Such a scenario also makes it difficult to prioritize environment and sustainable growth.
Science and technology have ranked low on the lists of political and economic priorities. And both, the policymakers and the people at large have been blind to the sea and its massive opportunities. As we become more conscious of the potential of our seawaters, we face further technological challenges because the sonars we deploy for any underwater survey perform sub-optimally.
We at the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune propose the Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework to manage the challenges and opportunities stakeholders face across the IOR. These stakeholders include actors in national security, blue economy, environment and disaster management, and science and technology.
The UDA framework addresses each of three aspects of policy, technology and innovation, and human resource development and is capable of realising our Hon’ble PM’s vision of SAGAR for the IOR. The SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision of the Honourable Prime Minister can get effectively realised by appropriately prioritising the UDA framework in a comprehensive manner.
India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretches for 23.7 lakh square kms. UDA in such a huge area requires the right tools and developed capabilities and capacity in surveying. Our efforts in maritime capability and capacity building have been pending for too long, and no, it is high time we aggressively pursue policies and strategies that harness our maritime potential.
In UDA, acoustic survey is typically the de facto tool because it has an advantage over all other techniques underwater. Due to high attenuation, optical, electro-magnetic and all other methods have extremely limited effectivity in the underwater domain. Underwater surveys primarily require two components: the sensor, and a platform ensuring that the sensor reaches every nook and corner of the entire underwater domain. The sensor is a different story altogether; we focus on the platform aspect for now, and this is where autonomous and unmanned vehicles come in.
An Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) is a self-propelled, unmanned, untethered underwater vehicle which can be utilized as a survey platform to map the seafloor or study the physical, chemical, or biological properties of the seawater. The Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington developed the first AUV in 1957. The “Special Purpose Underwater Research Vehicle”, or SPURV, was used to study diffusion, acoustic transmission, and submarine wakes. Acoustic signals from the accompanying research vessel guided SPURV in moving below the surface of the water. SPURV then generated models of underwater physical properties such as ocean currents and temperature.
AUVs are an attractive option for effective UDA in the IOR for a number of reasons. Firstly, they can reach waters too shallow for boats and too deep for human divers or many tethered vehicles. Once deployed and underwater, AUVs are safe from bad weather and can stay underwater for extended periods of time. Secondly, they are both scalable and modular i.e. scientists can choose which sensors to attach to them depending on their research objectives. Thirdly, they are less expensive than research vessels but can complete identical repeat surveys of an area.
AUVs also have some design challenges in terms of operations, range, endurance, and sensor use. Typically, these challenges revolve around optimising power and cost, calculating total payload, avoiding collisions, mitigating operational failure (such as overheating, water seepage etc.) and testing and monitoring the position of the vehicle.
Specifically, in the IOR, there is an urgent need to build core capability in AUV design and development.
Many aspects of IOR maritime development, such as oceanographic data gathering, ambient noise monitoring (for effective sensor deployment), underwater search and rescue, underwater channel modelling, underwater military surveillance, and marine environment monitoring urgently require deployment of AUVs.
Our national scientific and technological focus needs to be on initiating programmes for AUV development. Lack of specialized UDA capabilities is costing us substantially as we are deploying underwater resources for varied underwater exploration and exploitation missions in an ineffective and inefficient manner. IOR stakeholders need to collaborate and invest to build this capability. The involvement of young Indians is extremely critical and for that, we need our policymakers, practitioners, academia, and other stakeholders to conduct massive awareness campaigns about this domain. One way to generate interest, participation and capacity building would be to launch college-level AUV-designing/making competitions.
India must look at developing core capabilities for effective UDA framework beyond its own requirement, as a diplomatic tool to engage with nations in the IOR. We can effectively counter Chinese influence among IOR nations only by building technological superiority. In science and technology, AUV design and development is the single most important breakthrough that can demonstrate our superiority among our neighbours in the IOR.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.