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The yellow submarine of Haifa University

An international research team, which includes researchers from the University of Haifa, is developing technology based on underwater acoustics, funded by NATO, to deal with underwater terrorist threats such as mines or terrorist attacks by divers that threaten infrastructure facilities such as gas rigs, underwater pipelines or ports . A central tool in the developed defense system is an autonomous submarine (AUV) recently purchased at the University of Haifa. 

Source: Haifa University.
Source: Haifa University.

Seaports, drilling rigs, and underwater transportation pipelines are exposed to underwater terrorist attacks by divers who can attach explosives to the facilities, place stationary underwater mines, or even come out of the water and carry out an attack (similar to the attempted attack by Hamas on Zikim Beach in Operation Protective Edge). Today, the main countermeasures rely on human feedback - however, in light of the fact that 24-hour surveillance is needed and the difficulty of locating under the sea surface, especially when it comes to rigs located in the middle of the sea, present many difficulties with the existing methods.

The ThreatDetect project, which is led by Dr. Roy Diamant from the Department of Marine Technologies at the School of Marine Sciences of the University of Haifa, Dr. Paolo Casari from the University of Madrid and Prof. Lutz Lampe from the University of British Columbia, is funded by NATO as part of a program to deal with terrorist incidents at energy facilities . The goal of the project is to develop an autonomous system that will be able to monitor the expanses of the sea on its own and transmit accurate warnings about dangers in real time.

According to Dr. Diamant, the main difficulty stems from the fact that an accurate system must be developed, with a minimum of false alarms. "There is great difficulty in designing an autonomous system - completely or one that is continuously monitored by humans - so that it achieves satisfactory performance. A diver, for example, is a relatively small body and it is very difficult for sonar to distinguish it from a shark, dolphin, school of fish or even a bag. Detecting sea mines is even more difficult. They are much smaller, and often disguised as rocks. Beyond that, there is the abundant acoustic noise that exists in the vicinity of energy facilities such as oil rigs or at the mouth of a port resulting from the movement of ships or due to ongoing engineering activities," he said.

The system developed by the team includes a permanent buoy that can be placed at the entrance to the port or near the rig, to which a system of sensors are connected, including active acoustic systems. At the same time, the AUV operates and scans the area for sea mines. The great advantage of the AUV, which, as mentioned, was recently acquired by the School of Marine Sciences of the University of Haifa and is the only one of its kind in the Eastern Mediterranean, is the ability to move autonomously along a predetermined route and transmit live data to the buoy using underwater acoustic communication. The technology, developed in the Laboratory for Acoustics and Underwater Navigation at the University of Haifa by doctoral students Avi Abu and Dror Kifnis, includes advanced signal processing to detect movement patterns unique to divers, in order to distinguish between the detection of fish or marine mammals and the detection of a diver, and in addition, the development of an innovative ability to locate objects small, which will allow the distinction between a diver and a school of fish. In terms of detecting landmines, the development includes innovative image processing to "clean" the image and make it possible to differentiate automatically between the background of the image and the object.

At the Haifa Sea Research Conference held in November, Dr. Diamant presented the performance of the system that was tested for dummy "mines" in a number of experiments in a challenging marine environment that includes rocks and underwater kurkar ridges. Compared to the performance of the existing solutions that failed to detect the mines, the ThreatDetect system succeeded in detecting the dummy mines with great precision (see attached photos).

"Currently, our system knows how to detect the movement of divers, to suppress strong acoustic noises, and to clean the image that comes from the sonar well. In the next step we need to teach the system to recognize the mine from other inanimate objects, but in the meantime we are definitely very satisfied with our progress", concluded Dr. Diamant.

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