DefenseDesignMaritime Industry

Royal Navy Imagines the Future of 3D Printed Biomimicry On-demand Submarines

The recent ORNL 3D printed submarine showed that large scale composite 3D printing is ready to be implemented in the production of marine and submarine vehicles. The Royal Navy has started to look even further by unveiling a series of futuristic submarine concepts which mimic real marine life forms and radically change the way underwater warfare could look in 50 years, through the intensive adoption of 3D printing processes and materials.

With a crewed mothership shaped like a manta ray, unmanned eel-like vessels equipped with sensor pods which dissolve on demand to avoid enemy detection, and fish-shaped torpedoes sent to swarm against enemy targets, these concepts aim to inspire the world’s future underwater combat environment.

The UK’s brightest and most talented young engineers and scientists came up with the designs after being challenged by the Royal Navy to imagine what a future submarine would look like and how it would be used to keep Britain safe in decades to come.


“Today’s Royal Navy is one of the most technologically advanced forces in the world, and that’s because we have always sought to think differently and come up with ideas that challenge traditional thinking. If only 10 per cent of these ideas become reality, it will put us at the cutting edge of future warfare and defence operations,” said Commander Peter Pipkin, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Robotics Officer.

The whale shark/manta ray-shaped mothership would be built from super-strong alloys and acrylics, with surfaces which can morph in shape. With hybrid algae-electric cruising power and propulsion technologies including tunnel drives which work similarly to a Dyson bladeless fan, the submarine could travel at unprecedented speeds of up to 150 knots.

This mothership would be capable of launching unmanned underwater vehicles shaped like eels, which carry pods packed with sensors for different missions. These pods can damage an enemy vessel, or dissolve on demand at the end of an operation to evade detection. The project, named Nautilus 100, was set up to mark the 100th anniversary of the launch of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.

The young engineers behind Project Nautilus 100 visualized a future submarine with a whale shark-styled mouth and manta ray body, allowing a combination of speed and stealthiness unmatched by today’s technology.

Its 3D printed hull would be a combination of light but strong acrylic materials bonded to super strong alloys capable of withstanding the extreme pressure of depths of 1000m or more. The mothership would have a reduced crew of around 20 people, capable of brain-computer control of the submarine’s command system.

There would be two propulsion systems – one for silent and efficient cruising for thousands of miles at up to 30 knots, and the other for short bursts of high speed in a ‘fight or flight’ scenario. Powered in cruise mode by hybrid algae-electric propulsion, the final drive would use a large-scale tunnel drive that works similarly to a Dyson bladeless fan.

A recovery bay in the underside would act as a docking station for the transfer of people, weapons payloads, and general stores, and weapons bays integrated into the top of the submarine. The bays would hold a variety of weapons and sensors, plus conventional torpedo tubes for self-defence decoys which can be 3D-printed on board.

These eel-like UUVs would be the main sensors and secondary weapons carriers launched from the weapons bays on top of the mothership. Capable of complete autonomy, they could travel hundreds of miles in near silence using an eel-like sine wave propulsion motion. This disguises them as real marine life forms in the eyes of an enemy’s sensors.

Their main purpose would be to eject individual sensor pods, each using blue-green laser energy to communicate, forming a self-meshing underwater network with secure command and control hundreds of miles apart. These multi-purpose sensors would also listen for residual sound energy or electromagnetic disturbances, sharing vast amounts of data using artificial intelligence to provide battle-winning automated assessment and decision making for defensive and offensive operations.

The eel UUVs would be equipped with a variety of micro drones, made from cold salt water-soluble polymers like the liquid capsules used in your washing machines. They can be released in blooms, and communicate with each other and the eels, providing detail reconnaissance of targets.

The pods can produce a constant supply of sensors and drone swarms via 3D printers which would gather biological material from the ocean and use it to build new sensors. These micro drones can play a role in escort duties when the Royal Navy is required to shadow foreign submarines or vessels detected in British waters. The micro drones would follow and escort them until they were back in international waters.

They would be engineered to dissolve after a predetermined period of time, so if deployed in enemy waters they would be undiscovered. The drones would also have adhesive properties in their semi-dissolved state and could be directed to enemy ships to block their uptakes and intakes, rendering the vessels inoperative.

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