illustration of canister with drone
Raytheon
An illustration of how a drone might launch from a submarine.
By
updated 12/27/2011 1:27:06 PM ET 2011-12-27T18:27:06

A backpack-size kamikaze drone ordered into combat by the U.S. Army could also soon become an aerial scout for U.S. Navy submarines hidden beneath the waves. Launching a flying robot from underwater utilizes a sneaky tactic — using a tube that normally ejects trash from a submarine.

The Navy wants the "Switchblade" drone designed by AeroVironment to become a flying scout capable of spotting enemy ships over the horizon, even as the "mother" submarine remains hidden underwater. Its upcoming submarine launch test would coincide with the world's biggest naval war games in 2012, according to a new contract awarded to U.S. defense firm Raytheon.

Previous tests by Raytheon in 2008 showed how submerged launch vehicles can float to the surface and launch flying drones such as the Switchblade. But those demonstrations only involved surface ships and dummy drones.

The planned submarine launch would use the trash-disposal unit — the tube that typically ejects the trash of submarine crews — rather than one of several torpedo tubes designed to fire at enemy ships or submarines. Such a launch would take place with the submarine running just beneath the waves at periscope depth.

The Switchblade drone was originally designed to launch from a tube set up on the ground by a U.S. Army soldier, fly around until the soldier identified an enemy, and then dive at the target with explosive results. It's unclear whether or not the Navy wants the Switchblade to keep its kamikaze capability, but the scouting role seems far more useful for a submarine that already packs plenty of explosive torpedoes and missiles.

Any intended mission may become clearer during the Rim of the Pacific Exercise scheduled for 2012. That annual naval war game held by the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific involves plenty of opportunity for practice alongside ships ranging from carriers to destroyers and frigates.

If successful, Switchblade would join the U.S. military's fast-growing arsenal of robots at sea. The Navy has already begun testing a stealthy X-47B drone that could someday launch in squadrons from the heaving decks of carriers, as well as a Fire-X helicopter drone aimed at special operations such as catching smugglers or pirates.

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @ News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

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