Richard J. Seymour


The initial meeting of the World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) panel on Research Submersibles and Undersea Technologies was held at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C. on November 19, 1992. Paul Herer and Norman Caplan of NSF, a principal sponsor of the study, presented their agency's interests in nonmilitary submersibles and subsea technology. The participants formulated the general plan for the study, generated an initial list of target sites to visit, and established the dates and basic itinerary. This plan was refined in a series of conference calls over the next several months. Subsequent consultation with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the other major sponsor of this study, led to further refinement of the scope.

At the first meeting, the subject areas selected for investigation were: sensors and instrumentation; control, automation, and communication; hydrodynamics, power, and propulsion; manned systems, unmanned systems, and applications of acoustics; and systems engineering and integration. Each subject area was assigned to one panel member, who was responsible for documenting the panel's findings in this report with respect to that area. The panel's conclusions in the executive summary follow this breakdown, as do the subsequent chapters.

Budget constraints and the limited time available for panelist participation severely restricted the scope of the study. Initially, it was hoped to cover all of Europe, East and West. It became clear that countries such as Norway, Germany, Italy, and others with capabilities in submersibles and subsea technologies could not be adequately surveyed. Further, there were so many potential sites in Russia and Ukraine that a substantial selection process was required. For example, there was strong interest among panel members in visiting Vladivostok, but the costs and time to do this were prohibitive. Similarly, transportation difficulties in Ukraine prevented visiting both Sevastopol and Odessa in the allotted time, forcing a choice in favor of Sevastopol.

The two teams visiting the United Kingdom and France (a subset of the full panel) completed their visits during the week of May 10 to 14, 1993, and the entire panel met in Frankfurt, Germany on May 15 prior to the eastern Europe visits during the week of May 17 to 21. One team traveled to Finland and to the St. Petersburg area in Russia, two teams covered Moscow and vicinity, and another team was principally in Ukraine. The entire panel reassembled in Frankfurt on May 22 prior to returning to the United States.

There was considerable reluctance among many of the potential organizations selected for visiting. This seemed to stem from either a concern for commercial (or national) secrecy or an inability to see any advantage to the host institution in spending time and resources to accommodate the visiting panelists. A statement of WTEC's purpose, either in English or in Russian, short biographies of the panel members, and a list of questions representing the panel's interests were distributed to the prospective sites in advance. Some desired sites in Russia were not available to the panel, and one location was canceled on the morning of the visit because of a failure to secure the necessary government clearances. In spite of these difficulties, panel members were quite impressed with the quality of the sites that were made available to them.

A total of 38 sites were investigated: 1 in Finland, 3 in France, 19 in Russia, 5 in Ukraine, and 10 in the United Kingdom. Of these, 4 were academic institutions, 10 were involved in basic research, 3 were trade groups, 19 undertook applied research, and 3 conducted operations. (A list of the sites visited is contained in the Table of Contents of this report.)

In spite of long workdays, the visits were necessarily of short duration. There was always a great deal more to see and discuss than time allowed. Further, the discussions were -- for the most part -- led by the hosts, with little opportunity for the panelists to steer towards other topics of interest. This meant that panelists were almost always precluded from technically rigorous discussions, and often were given only general-purpose written material. This lack of technical depth was a source of concern and frustration to the panel, but it was generally agreed that without drastically narrowing the technical and geographical scope, there really was no solution to this problem.

Another limitation arose from the amount of time devoted to tours of laboratories and facilities at the expense of discussion time. On occasion, panelists saw unique and impressive facilities during these tours. For the most part, however, the tours were highly repetitive and relatively unproductive.

Language barriers were an obvious restraint to communication in most host countries. Language differences also limited the technical depth that could be reached. Translated written materials, good technical translators (there was simultaneous translation on one occasion in Ukraine!), and solid advance field work lessened the impact of the language barrier, but it remained a significant restraint, particularly in the former Soviet Union (FSU).

The effects of defense conversion activities were evident at most of the sites the panel visited, but most markedly in Russia and Ukraine. New companies or trade groups in these countries, lacking previous experience in or close ties to free market activities, appeared to have difficulty deciding on appropriate civil applications for their extensive defense technology. The panel observed, for example, a surprisingly large number of agencies in Russia designing or proposing tourist submarines in competition with each other for a world market that is already close to saturation. In addition to defense conversion, Russian and Ukrainian scientific institutions are attempting to convert to commercial objectives, including the development of marine resources and improvement of environmental conditions. There appeared to be very little planned activity at many institutions. It appears that many valuable assets, human and physical, may be in danger of being lost because of the severity of the economic problems.

One of the interesting problems that arose from some of the visits in Russia and Ukraine occurred because of the hosts' decisions to disclose information and technology that had been declassified only very recently. Many of the panel members are aware of complementary work in the United States that remains classified. However, Russia and Ukraine possess impressive, and in some cases unique, facilities for physical testing. These facilities are underutilized and offer opportunities for Western nations.

Researchers in Russia and Ukraine have extremely limited computing facilities compared to Western engineers in this field. As a result, Russian and Ukrainian researchers have taken a strong theoretical or analytical approach to most problems, which appears to have been very valuable. It has resulted in an ability to write extremely efficient computer code to facilitate numerical analyses and signal processing on limited computer platforms. Given the ready availability of large platforms in the West and the greater difficulties in maintaining tightly coded programs, it is not clear that this capability represents a technological asset to the rest of the world.

Russia and Ukraine possess extensive fleets of seagoing research vessels capable of long voyages. These vessels possess state-of-the-art facilities for conducting oceanographic investigations. Except for vessels under contract to Western nations, these vessels are largely inactive at this time.

Russia and Ukraine have adopted a philosophy of including human presence in nearly all subsea geophysical and oceanographic investigations. They have produced an impressive variety of manned research submersibles that also are largely unused at this time. The beginning of research on autonomous vehicles in Russian means that country has, in effect, largely skipped over the development of the conventional cable-controlled remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

The panel principally visited government entities in Russia. In a few cases, it was possible to visit newly formed commercial companies associated with such centers. It became apparent that large numbers of companies with shared personnel and objectives have been established surrounding many of the mother research and development facilities, and that these companies form sources of technology and commercial capability that were not adequately assessed by the panel.

Many of the panel's observations can be assumed to represent only the general state of the art in the research and development laboratories in that country. That is, there are almost certainly more advanced facilities that the panel was not able to visit.

Published: June 1994; WTEC Hyper-Librarian