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Imagine robot pods lying soundlessly at the bottom of the ocean, awaiting instructions to surface and launch long dormant drones. It may sound like science fiction, but the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is trying to make it a reality with its Upward Falling Payload programme.

UFPs, as the capsules are known, are meant to be remotely triggered by the US Navy when it’s in need of some covert surveillance or aerial support. Remote operators, who could be stationed hundreds of kilometres away, would activate the UFPs and send them floating up to the water’s surface, or falling upwards.

“The idea of UFP is to pre-deploy them far in advance, and then they will be there when you need them,” said Jeffrey Krolik, program manager at DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office.

Upward Falling Payload programme_illThe brains behind UFPs envision them made of three complementary systems: “risers” – pressure tolerant tube that will lie dormant on the ocean floor; communication systems; and, the payloads themselves, such as sensor buoys or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

To advance the $22 million project, DARPA has teamed up with five defence companies: Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, Sparton, and Global Aerospace Corporation (GAC).

About half the world’s oceans are deeper than four kilometres. Hiding UFPs at this depth will make them incredibly difficult to detect. “If you are going to pre-deploy them, though, you better put them in a place where they are going to be there when you need them and the adversary can’t get to them,” Krolik said. “The notion of UFP is you store them at the very bottom of the deepest parts of the ocean so that it’s really hard to find them and expensive to bring them up. When you need them, you just trigger them from far away with some kind of communications device.”

The pods are likely to be made of very thick aluminium with special coatings to protects them from the ocean’s corrosive environment. Three varieties of pods are planned, sized according to payload specifications. The smallest measures about 1.5m tall, while the largest is a whopping 4.5m tall and 1.9m wide.