What we know now about Mystery Florida Spy Craft

More details have emerged about a mysterious unmanned spacecraft discovered in Florida last week that I wrote about Monday. We quickly realized that the ship is a wave glider made by Boeing
Liquid Robotics subsidiary and presented by the US Navy as Sensor Hosting Autonomous Remote Craft, or SHARC. The funny part was all those antennas, suggesting part of what the Navy calls “SHARC classified payloads that carry out critical Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions.” Thanks to some keen-eyed readers, the exact system has been identified, which may tell us something about the glider’s mission and what it was doing there.

Many commenters noted that the dipole array of antennas suggested a direction search setting, one to detect and locate the source of radio transmissions. Twitter submarine expert @ Johann_U96 identified the exact model – it’s the SeaWatch system produced by maritime surveillance company ThayerMahan.

SeaWatch is a self-contained surveillance package integrated with an unmanned surface vessel, providing long-lasting capability, staying at sea for months to monitor ‘illegal activity’. While the website is cautious about exactly what ‘targets of interest’ are being tracked, Florida’s location suggests that smuggling may be involved. The website mentions that the system recently completed a successful 84-day mission for an unnamed US government client.

While ThayerMahan is careful not to mention the Wave Glider by name, a 2017 interview with its CEO, retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mike Connor, shows him standing next to a Wave Glider during testing at the sea off Hawaii and talking about the company’s collaboration with Liquid Robotics, and its previous Outpost sensor system is based on a Wave Glider.

The system can monitor multiple radio frequency bands at once, automatically recording each transmission and storing for analysis without human intervention. Any signals of interest will be transmitted directly to ThayerMahan’s headquarters in Groton, Connecticut, for further analysis.

Legally operating vessels must have an Automatic Identification System, a transponder that provides vessels with details and locations to avoid collisions. Smugglers and others will turn off your AIS so they cannot be tracked. If SeaWatch picks up radio transmissions from a point that does not correspond to an AIS track, they know they have potential illegal activity. They may receive communications with other vessels, or communications with crew members on the same vessel, or from the vessel’s radar. (The same type of maritime espionage can now be carried out from space, with systems like startup Hawkeye 360’s Hawk miniature satellite trio.) Of course, it could also detect submarines if they get close to the surface to communicate through a radio buoy.

The SeaWatch system was likely included in ThayerMahan’s $ 19.4 million contract with the U.S. Navy, awarded in July 2019, to develop innovative autonomous systems for intelligence gathering. But the antenna you can see on the surface is the tip of the iceberg. Many things are also happening underwater.

In September 2019, ThayerMahan contracted to purchase Kraken Robotics’ KATFISH towed sonar systems. This is an advanced seabed imaging system that provides 30 times more detail than the conventional lateral scanning sonar, solving objects just over an inch wide. KATFISH can be towed by unmanned vessels such as the Wave Glider. Once again, one can speculate how such a system could be useful in combating traffickers who leave drug deposits anchored to the seabed for recovery, or in other activities.

Such Wave Glider platforms can also have many other sensor capabilities. The Navy plan to conduct tests with 20 SHARCs working together suggests that we are rapidly approaching the future when the sea will be filled with floating eyes and ears permanently at the station, keeping an eye on not only enemy submarines but also violators of the law.