18-05-2023 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, engineers from a Finnish company have developed an underwater surveillance system designed to protect infrastructure such as power cables and internet connections. What challenges does underwater infrastructure face, what did the engineers develop, and how will such surveillance systems change the future of infrastructure?
Building infrastructure underwater may seem like a modern invention, but it actually dates back more than 100 years, and more than 1000 years if you consider the underwater setting concrete developed by the Romans. As nations developed around the world, it quickly became apparent that delivering mail via horses and railroads was far too slow, especially when dealing with political elections, country relations, and wartime. The invention of the telegram and the eventual telephone proved to be an excellent solution, as pulses of current down a wire could travel hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye (even if repeater stations were needed).
However, telegram and telephone networks relied on cables, and these cables could only be initially carried over land. Trying to cross oceans to connect major world powers presented numerous challenges, with one such issue being corrosion. Additionally, wildlife would often be attracted to such cables, and even boats ran the risk of damaging them if accidentally dredged. But eventually, these challenges were solved, and soon after, cables were being laid all over the world for power and communication.
For more than 100 years, underwater infrastructure has played a key role in security and energy, especially for island nations such as the UK and countries too far or separated by potentially hostile nations such as Sweden, Finland, and Taiwan. However, recent activity around the shores of the UK and Denmark has demonstrated the vulnerability of this infrastructure to hostile parties, such as the gas pipe explosion in 2022 and the subsequential cutting of internet cables to islands off the cost of the UK.
While there has been plenty of finger-pointing, many experts, such as those from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, believe that these attacks have been carried out by Russia in retaliation to the West’s actions against Russia for its ongoing conflict in Ukraine. (despite it being a special military operation, Russia to date has potentially seen over 500,000 casualties wounded/dead). At the same time, According to reports by The Guardian, Russian ships have been observed near key UK wind farms along the eastern coast, which some analysts speculate could indicate intelligence gathering on the location of power-providing cables. This claim, however, remains unconfirmed.
As such, it is clear that future conflicts could see underwater infrastructure targeted to try and limit energy and communications. A nation that has limited access to internet services and energy is less able to defend itself, generate wealth, and, most importantly, continue a war effort.
This surveillance platform, called UNWAS, represents the cutting-edge 3rd generation system launched by Image Soft Oy, a leading Nordic underwater and maritime technology company. The success of the previous two generations inspired the creation of this advanced version, packed with an entirely new digital electronics and software suite. According to its developers, the new platform, called UNWAS, is able to autonomously identify numerous underwater threats, including submarines, divers, autonomous underwater vehicles, and remotely operated vehicles.
Key features of this 3rd generation UNWAS system include its capability to detect, locate, and classify all types of underwater threats—even near bustling shipping lanes—without adding disruptive noise to the marine environment. Furthermore, its system is designed to withstand various challenging conditions, such as those found in the Baltic and North Seas, as well as tropical waters.
Emphasising its impressive capability, Matti Suuronen, CEO of Image Soft Oy, remarked, 'UNWAS perfectly meets the urgent need to defend and monitor both national maritime borders as well as key underwater infrastructure in today’s geopolitical environment.' Indeed, the UNWAS system is not only undetectable but also equipped with a subsea protection software suite that utilises deep learning for enhanced threat recognition. It can, for instance, discern a mini-submarine attempting to mask its presence under a noisy civilian cargo ship. This means that oncoming threats will unlikely be able to identify the devices and neutralise them, thereby providing enhanced protection for underwater infrastructure. Additionally, the passive nature of the system means that it has minimal impact on surrounding marine life, as active sonar systems can often be deafening for whales, fish, and smaller aquatic life.
Studies from institutions like the International Committee of the Red Cross on conflicts like the Ukraine war have shown that actions such as bombing civilians often fail to bring about a swift end to hostilities and instead result in high casualty counts. But the war has also demonstrated the importance of infrastructure and the need to defend it at all costs. While Ukraine doesn’t rely on such underwater connections, its massive power and rail network have been repeatedly targeted in an attempt to limit the telecommunication abilities of Ukraine, and this has had some effect.
But while Ukraine continues to defend itself against Russia, the rest of the world is starting to look at its own infrastructure to determine whether it can defend itself from all attacks, whether they be from land, air, sea, or cyberspace. As such, it is likely that governments will soon start to impose rules on infrastructure providers to ensure that proper defence mechanisms are put in place. Such methods could include localised jammers to defend against drones, radar and proximity sensors to identify people and incoming projectiles, and even hydrophones for submerged installations.
Of course, detection is only half the solution; an adequate response system is needed. For high-end military installations, this could be in the form of close weapon systems such as the Phalanx CIWS, but for commercial entities, operating such a platform would likely be illegal in every sense conceivable. Thus, it would be up to local authorities to link up to surveillance platforms and provide the necessary response to threats.
Overall, engineers face more threats than ever when designing new products, whether it is from other companies, countries, or cyber criminals, and the need to integrate defences has never been more important. Now that critical infrastructure is at threat from attack, engineers will need to develop new solutions to help mitigate such attacks.