Keeping an ?underwater? eye on China There?s tension in the South China Sea as the Philippines, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries warily eye what each perceives as Chinese expansionism in their home waters. Witness China?s claims of possession of the Paracel Islands that are contested by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam; and the Spratly Islands disputed by China and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
The Chinese are even dredging sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say looks like the beginnings of an airfield. What better way to consistently monitor all this activity than by small, inexpensive fuel-cell powered robo-subs able to patrol the 1.4-million-square-mile South China Sea for a month at a time? Japan, of course, has a keen interest to know about all Chinese dealings in the area, and according to the Japanese Defense Ministry, Japan initially planned to develop such a robo-sub on its own, officially an AUV for ?autonomous underwater vehicle? or UUV for “unmanned underwater vehicle”, but the U.S. Navy showed a strong interest in joint development. According to Channel News Asia, citing unnamed sources, the Ministry supplied an artist’s rendering of a yellow, submarine-shaped vehicle cruising the ocean depths, which looked curiously close to Boeing?s Echo Ranger. Boeing?s robo-sub would be an excellent choice for the mission, but neither the U.S. nor Japan would confirm any details. After years of use for oil and gas surveys in the Gulf of Mexico, Boeing fully refurbished Echo Ranger for military purposes. As reported in Frontline Defence, Boeing has re-machined the frame structure, added new motor windings and fin actuators, a new pressure vessel, adaptable hull penetrators and state-of-the-art computers. This 18-foot-long, 4-foot-wide UUV now performs on Navy long-endurance missions. Echo Ranger boasts a 996lb payload capacity. Reportedly, Oceaneering International is assisting Boeing with the Echo Ranger refurbishment, together with the Dutch firm Fugro. The U.S./Japanese version is said to be nearly double the length of the Echo Ranger. At 33 feet, that?s a large robo-sub to power around for thirty days at a time. That?s where Japanese fuel-cell technology comes into play. In sizing up the craft, Motley Fool wrote, ?It’s small. Reportedly, the new submarine will be a mere 33 feet in length. It’s robotic. Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the vessel will be able to follow a ?pre-programmed course.? It’s “green.” Powered by neither radioactive nuclear fuel nor dirty diesel, the robo-sub will operate on electricity generated by fuel cells. It’s independent.
“The sub will be able to travel away from a mother ship under its own power, swimming underwater for perhaps for as long as a month at a time before returning to base. It’s unarmed. Initial versions of the sub, at least, will be equipped with sonar that can help the boat identify threats while on patrol?but no torpedoes to shoot.? That the U.S. and Japanese are teaming up on the autonomous sub, first surfaced in the Yomiuri Shimbun and was subsequently reported on in the Chicago Tribune. Although Japan’s Defense Ministry officially denies the report, the country recently gave its military expanded powers to cooperate with allied nations on defense matters?saying that it intends to spend nearly a quarter-trillion dollars on new equipment for its military. A Defense Ministry official went on to say that it had earmarked $25M over five years to develop a fuel-cell system for the vehicle, adding that it would not be equipped with torpedoes or other weaponry. “The UUV is purely for patrolling — it’s not a military weapon,” the official added. Fuel-cell technology The US military reportedly got involved when it heard about its Japanese counterparts’ plans for a fuel-cell sub. Fuel cells generate emissions-free energy through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, and are most commonly associated with environmentally friendly vehicles. Japan is a leader in the technology while the US is a major player in hydrogen storage. Global fuel cell shipments were 50,050 units in 2013 and are expected to reach 790,450 units by 2020, growing at a CAGR of 49.1 percent from 2014 to 2020. As far as the AUV/UUV development scene goes, lots of work still needs to be done, as is readily seen in the recent (2014) research paper: Fuel Cell Power Systems for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles: State of the Art. ?Given the mass and volume constraints imposed on an AUV, specific energy and energy density arise as two of the main design variables. ?Due to the fact that there hasn’t yet been a commercial fuel cell powered AUV, there also hasn’t been a commercial fuel cell stack [the power generating component of the power system] developed specifically for this application. Instead, standard stacks have been adapted for use in AUV?s in some cases, such as the IDEF AUV and the Seahorse concept.
?Another example of a stack adapted for an underwater application is the 3 kW one that Ballard supplied the Perry PC-14 submersible and the Ballard-Mark-V 35-cell 5 kW PEM stack which has been studied for AUV?s. ?In other cases, novel designs have been used. This is the case of the stack that JAMSTEC is currently developing, and also of a few firms which have received financing from the defense industry and are also developing their own systems.? In the general fuel cell market, Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) has emerged as the leading product segment in the overall market and accounted for 88.6 percent of total units shipped and 42.8 percent of total capacity in 2013. However, Molten-carbonate fuel cells (MCFCs) are expected to be the fastest growing product segment for fuel cell at an estimated CAGR of 56.6 percent from 2014 to 2020. The global market is highly concentrated with the top four participants catering to over 70 percent of global demand. The market is dominated by companies such as Fuel Cell Energy, Ballard, Clearedge and Toshiba. Some of the other companies operating in the global market include, Panasonic, Plug Power Inc. and Hydrogenics Corporation. What?s so important about the South China Sea? Buried energy treasure, for starters; and China has discovered a huge gas reserve. In South China Sea, China Makes First Big Gas Discovery While Other Countries Look On according to ClimateProgress.com ?The World Bank estimates that the South China Sea holds proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. For comparison, the United States has just over 300 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves according to the EIA. China has about half that, at just over 150 trillion cubic feet.
The China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNO
OC) announced its first deep-water gas field discovery in the South China Sea. Further escalating tensions, Vietnam countered announcing ?an agreement with India to expand cooperation in oil and gas exploration and production in the sea ? including in contested waters. China has previously objected to this and reacted to the announcement negatively.? Motley Fool recently produced an overview of the rising AUV/UUV industry. Here is an excerpt from MF?s conclusion on potential impact for U.S. companies: What it means to U.S. companies?and investors While not as high profile as their high-flying UAV cousins, UUVs are catching on in the United States as well, with several companies known to be involved in the development of “underwater drones” for the military. These companies could theoretically partner with Japan in development of its 33-foot robo-sub — or compete with it. As such, for investors in these companies, Japan’s project bears watching. General Dynamics is a major player in blue water warfare through its marine systems division, which did $6.7 billion in business last year. It’s working on a 1,700-pound UUV for the U.S. Navy, which is called “Knifefish” and is designed for use in minesweeping operations off of Littoral Combat Ships (which General Dynamics also helps build). iRobot moved into the underwater domain when it bought tiny Nekton Research for $10 million in 2008. Nekton makes Seaglider autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs, an acronym still competing with UUV for primacy in military tech circles). At less than 6 feet in length, the Seaglider is just a fraction of the size of the 33-foot beast Japan is building. Boeing gained a toehold in the UAV industry when it purchased ScanEagle drone-maker for $400 million (coincidentally, also in 2008). Since at least 2011, however, Boeing has been working on a new project: the Echo Ranger. At 18.5 feet in length and weighing five tons, Echo Ranger is just over half the size of the sub Japan is working on. But depending on the power source Boeing ultimately puts into it, the company says Echo Ranger could run twice as long before refueling — up to 70 days. Oceaneering International is the biggest name in underwater submarines today has been building submersible robots for years?primarily for the offshore oil and gas industry. Oceaneering is also apparently helping Boeing to build Echo Ranger, in partnership with a third company, Netherlands-based Fugro. The upshot for investors “Drones for the military are a billion-dollar industry — dollars that to date have been primarily tossed into the air to buy unmanned aerial vehicles. “But as Japan’s robo-sub project shows, and as the proliferation of unmanned underwater vehicle models among U.S. defense contractors further demonstrates, interest in underwater robots is increasing. Investors looking to get in on the ground floor of a new kind of military product — one that counts 71 percent of the Earth’s surface as its theater of operations — would be wise to take notice.