BlueScan – The Big Picture

For Navies right around the globe, submarines pose a very real, very potent threat. Lurking silently beneath the surface, these platforms can switch from intelligence gatherer to hunter in the blink of an eye and cause catastrophic damage to a fleet of surface ships. 

Although submarines existed well beforehand, it is widely accepted that the first real unrestricted submarine warfare began in late 1914, early 1915 . German subs, known as U-boats, began attacking ships off the British Isles causing widespread panic amongst British sailors. After the sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger ship whose sinking killed 1201, 128 of them Americans, the US put pressure on the Germans to cease its submarine warfare.

However, in 1917 the U-boats went back into action with devastating effect, sinking supply ships, passenger ships and battleships and triggering a monumental loss of morale for Allied sailors. The British retaliated with their own submarines, having an equal impact on German ships and morale. Submarines were now proven fleet killers and the most feared enemy in the water.

When WWII erupted both Allied and Axis submarine fleets joined the fray and once again, proved to be devastatingly effective. Although they didn’t have it all their own way, as aircraft became a semi-effective Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) platform - and then came radars and sonars which forced the submarines on both sides to change their tactics to avoid heavy losses.

In the wake of the Cold War, a new kind of sub emerged – the nuclear submarine. Since then, submarines have continued to act as both an intelligence gathering platform, and a potent deterrent to possible adversaries. Despite the advancements in sonar technology, submarines are still roaming the oceans, waiting for the perfect moment to strike at the heart of any major convoy – namely an Aircraft Carrier or in the case of the Royal Australian Navy - the LHD Amphibious Assault Ships.

Setting a perimeter

“The way the Navy moves its fleet is in a protective ring,” says former Principal Warfare Officer now Sales and Marketing Manager for Thales Australia David Eyles. “With over 1,000 of our fighting troops and all of their equipment, vehicles and helicopters on board an LHD, the other ships and submarines form a protective ring around it. All of these vessels are using their Sonars individually to paint a picture of what is happening under the water. The wider that perimeter, the better.”

This method has worked well to date, but with the rapid advancement in technology, including submarine warfare tech and weaponry, Navies are looking to expand that subsurface imagery. This is where BlueScan changes the game.

“When it comes to ASW, previously we’ve relied on each asset to paint their own tactical image of what’s around them,” says Eyles. “We’d then have to communicate that with other members of the fleet. This is effective to a point, but imagine being able to have one coordinated image taken from every asset we have in and out of the water. We saw this “multistatic” approach as a step change for Navy’s situational awareness some time ago and we began delving into making it a reality. Now, it is a reality, and it’s called BlueScan.”

BlueScan takes the Sonar data obtained from all of the available on-board and off-board assets including ships, shore-based stations, sonar buoys, and autonomous vehicles, and then processes and integrates all of the information to form one dynamic, real-time underwater tactical picture of a much larger area than previously thought possible. Using a massive data bank for reference, the automated system detects anomalies and reports the threat back to Navy’s Sonar operators, offering it a significant advantage in Anti-Submarine Warfare. 

“This big picture capability is a game changer for the Navy,” says Eyles. “It ensures it can manoeuvre keeping its assets like the LHD safe within a much wider perimeter. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to BlueScan’s total capability.” 

Moving forwards

With the integration of other automated technologies like Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, “virtual assistants” will act to further free up Sonar operators and boost collaborative potential. By providing contact and data fusion, analysis and recognition, BlueScan significantly increases underwater situational awareness and gives Navy the decisive advantage during ASW operations.

“BlueScan has so much potential,” Eyles says emphatically. “It really masters the critical decision chain, from gathering the data from all of those sensors, transmitting it securely with high end cybersecure pathways, and then processing the data to assist in decision making. This is where Thales’s recent acquisitions of incredible IoT connectivity and end-point security companies like Guavus and Gemalto help BlueScan shine.

“Not only does it provide Navy with a much clearer, much wider situational awareness, using Big Data, AI and Analytics it pores through an incredible amount of stored data to detect objects, and even more concerning for Sonar operators, vacuums of objects – an inherent lack of anything. That’s never a good sign, but BlueScan will pick that up. This makes an enemy submarine’s operations much, much harder.”

As a former Principal Warfare Officer onboard Navy’s frigates, Eyles is most excited about what this means for Navy and the end users.

“Having all of those Sonar operators across the entire fleet seeing the same ASW picture is an incredible opportunity,” he insists. “For Navy to do its job effectively it needs a clear tactical image of its surroundings. Situational awareness is absolutely paramount, and by expanding that picture it means the fleet can move much more freely to and from its objectives. 

“With the use of Virtual Reality and even Augmented Reality, BlueScan can do full mission rehearsals with the entire Task force. That is a massive step change for Navy.

“For the operators themselves, having these virtual assistants taking care of the repetitive, tedious aspects of the jobs, it will free up their cognitive functioning and allow them to focus on the more important parts of their role and assist them in making tactical decisions. I’m excited for what BlueScan can do for them and for our fleet.”