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The Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE), an executive body of NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO), is an established scientific facility that organizes and conducts research and technology development centered on the maritime domain.

The “Collaborative Autonomous Mine Countermeasures CA-MCM” is one of the main projects at CMRE, aiming at increasing the capabilities of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) by using Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS) to quickly and reliably detect, classify, and localize mines. This implies the use of high performance, efficient processing systems installed in underwater robots working in real-time.

CMRE has been using CPU boards produced by SECO s.r.l. since 2013. The Pico-ITX boards (Single Board Computers) are suitable for integration in underwater vehicles where reliability, reduced footprint, low power con sump tion and computational power are key factors. As of today these boards have been installed on a wide range of vehicles that are part of the CMRE fleet.

One of the best examples of these vehicles equipped with the Pico-ITX boards is the MUSCLE, CMRE major MCM AUV. With a high-resolution, high-frequency synthetic aperture sonar (SAS) installed, MUSCLE provides superb image quality of objects on the seafloor, and it has a high level of autonomy, thanks to its real-time processing software running on a dedicated high-end GPU-based system and advanced decision-making capabilities. Despite its relatively low TRL (Technology Readiness Level), the MUSCLE unmanned vehicle is regularly tested and successfully utilized in operational Mine Countermeasure (MCM) scenarios in which a very quick turnaround time from mission execution to post mission analysis and very short mission-to-mission downtimes are key factors.

CMRE began developing concepts for allowing a quick data transfer on autonomous vehicles in 2014. The challenges in developing an underwater field swappable storage unit are in the use of unconventional underwater connectors (typically not suited for standard data buses) and the miniaturization imposed by the portability of the system despite its ability to sustain high pressures.

The SECO Pico-ITX boards with two Gigabit Ethernet ports and 2 SATA3 channels combined with their small form factor seemed a possible solution for such applications. The full integration of one of these boards into a small water-tight 300m rated case developed and built at CMRE was successfully accomplished in 2015. The system has then passed multiple bench tests and it is now approaching the field testing stage. The high computational power and the possibility of installing up to 8GB of RAM will allow for some data processing contribution to the overall reduction of the post-mission-analysis time.

The newly built underwater field-swappable storage unit is expected to significantly reduce the mission-to-mission downtime due to the data transfer from hours to minutes. This will make multiple missions in the same day possible and it will bring the operational readiness of the CMRE underwater robots, in particular the MUSCLE AUV, one step further. The quick storage unit swap will also allow the operator to have access to the results produced by the advanced internal processing unit of the MUSCLE AUV during the mission execution.

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