Professor Conducts Research on Submarine Detection

Technology Can Be Used to Deter Intrusion, Drug Smuggling

A Chinese Kilo-class diesel submarine gets ready to prowl the waters.

A Chinese Kilo-class diesel submarine gets ready to prowl the waters.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the People’s Republic of China has embarked on an ambitious program to expand and modernize its military forces. The country’s naval force, now the largest among Asian countries, features a growing fleet of submarines, including nearly 10 nuclear-powered attack submarines as well as a number of nuclear ballistic and cruise-missile subs.

According to an article published recently by the U.S. Naval Institute, China seems to be "transitioning toward becoming a global naval force,” capable of projecting power or diplomacy through sustained maritime operations anywhere in the world.

For the past two years, computer science Prof. Jie Wang and his team of researchers from UMass Lowell and the University of Connecticut have been conducting theoretical research on developing new mobile networks of undersea sensors for detecting submarine intrusions along the coast of the United States. The team’s work is funded with a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) worth nearly $250,000.

“Current technologies have made it possible for hostile submarines to evade standard sonar detection,” notes Wang, who chairs UMass Lowell’s Department of Computer Science and the principal investigator for the NSF project. “Finding methods to detect intruding submarines therefore becomes important and timely. Our project aims to develop a comprehensive theoretical and practical approach for constructing such undersea sensor networks.”

In addition to China, North Korea also poses a threat. Although far less advanced, North Korea’s submarine fleet of about 70 diesel-electric boats still represents a force to reckon with.

Aside from deterring foreign military threats, Wang says the detection technology can also be used to enhance the Coast Guard’s anti-drug-smuggling operations.

“Smugglers now use homemade submarines or submersibles to transport their illicit cargo,” says Wang. “They can even hire submarines from other countries to do the job. They have the money!”

Developing a 3-D Barrier

The team is studying the possibility of actually forming a 3-D sensor “barrier” underwater. The plan is to deploy acoustic or magnetic sensors randomly over a target area by dropping them from an aircraft or shooting them from a ship-based cannon. Some of the sensors will float freely near the surface and the sea bottom while the rest will be situated in between.

“Because of wind and current, the sensors will tend to drift so our task is to design algorithms that will calculate the possibilities that there will be holes or gaps in the sensors’ coverage where intruders can pass through,” explains Wang. “We need to study how we can detect such holes so sensors could be moved to fill those holes.”

He says they have to devise ways to move the sensors with minimal cost and energy use.

“What we don’t want to do is to move a lot of sensors and to move them over long distances,” he says. “There’s a lot of calculations involved here.”

Wang expects their research results to have substantial impact on understanding the construction of sensing barriers in underwater environments.

“They will also be integrated into the department’s graduate and undergraduate teaching and outreach activities,” he says.