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June 20, 2016

New Pelagos Sensor System Improves U.S. Submarine Operations

Pelagos team installing instruments

Members of the Pelagos team from the U.S. Navy and Johns Hopkins APL work on installation of one of the suite of 14 instruments onto the sail of a submarine. Credit: JHUAPL

Pelagos team performing final checks

Pelagos team members from the U.S. Navy and Johns Hopkins APL perform at-sea testing and final checks on the suite of 14 instruments installed on the sail of a U.S. submarine. Credit: JHUAPL

Pelagos team during instrument installation

Two members of the Johns Hopkins APL Pelagos team pause during installation of one of the 14 environmental instruments that provide U.S. submariners with a wide array of new data about their environment.Credit: JHUAPL  

One of the ongoing challenges facing submariners is getting information about their environmental surroundings to maximize their performance at sea. A new program called Pelagos — developed as an independent research and development project by the Sea Control Mission Area of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory — provides U.S. submariners with a wide array of new data about their environment, as well as improved methods to utilize this data to make tactically relevant decisions.

Named after the Greek word for “the sea,” Pelagos is an environmental data collection system that delivers direct measurements of air and sea parameters, and employs custom algorithms to analyze the data, interpret the results, and display relevant information to the warfighters on customized screens.

The genesis of Pelagos can be traced back to a combination of similar operational goals that were presented to APL’s Force Projection Sector (FPS) by different Navy (Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA) sponsors. “The project began in 2013, when APL staff members noted that three independent sponsors with unique challenges could all benefit from a better understanding of their immediate environment,” said Sea Control’s Mike Malchiodi, lead engineer for Pelagos. “Most of what they know about their environment comes from historical databases; very little was from real-time data gathering. APL has experience with various pieces of a system like this from previous efforts, but with these new combined customer needs presented to us, it was a perfect time to bring them all together.”

A core team of about 10 staff members in Force Projection — made up of engineers and scientists, and led by Project Manager Jim Pontious — realized these related challenges could be combined and solved for greater operational benefits than the sum of the individual requests. They approached FPS leadership with their plan.

“We were very impressed by the initiative, vision and commitment of the team that presented the idea of Pelagos,” said Lisa Blodgett, head of FPS and, in 2013, Sea Control’s Mission Area Executive (Sea Control is within the Force Projection Sector). “It is a great example of staff members identifying a problem and collaborating across programs to develop a solution that has huge warfighter benefit. The team was clearly a group of die-hard believers that understood how the data was important to the sponsor and the warfighters. That, along with their commitment to making tight deadlines to prove they could get it done, made backing them an easy decision.”

“APL had the foresight to invest in this and make sure it happened,” Malchiodi said. “Force Projection took its own capital and purchased much of the equipment used to validate those proposed concepts.”

“The constant drumbeat of support from APL and the sponsors made the team’s job easier, because we knew we had their support behind us,” said David L. Porter of FPS, lead scientist for Pelagos.

Just as accurate atmospheric data for an airplane pilot is critical, a submarine crew needs to know about the conditions at and above the sea surface, as well as what’s happening in the ocean around them. “To get that data, we have to be careful about where we place the sensors around the exterior surface of the submarine to optimize their performance and survivability in the harsh ocean environment without impacting the submarine’s safety and performance,” said Malchiodi.

“It was an engineering marvel they set up,” said Porter. “They quickly deployed 14 instruments onto the outside of a submarine and got them to feed data into the sub. That’s not an easy task in any amount of time.”

Only 10 months after project kickoff, the first Pelagos system was designed, fabricated, approved and installed on a submarine. The approval process for temporary installation of equipment on board a U.S. Navy submarine (Temporary Alterations, or TEMPALT) normally takes 14 to 18 months from design completion to approval.

The Pelagos team operated as a small rapid-response unit within APL, and used internal assets on campus to develop, fabricate and certify just about every aspect of the system. “We used a design team made up of personnel from both FPS and the Research and Exploratory Development Department, the fabrication shops, the pressure test facility, and performed electromagnetic interference and susceptibility testing in the chamber run by the Space Exploration Sector,” said Malchiodi. “We also relied heavily on APL’s purchasing team to help us meet a very aggressive schedule.”

The first shakedown cruise of the system on board the platform was a success; the APL team operated the sensors and tested the system for approximately one week, then turned it over to the crew. “It immediately changed the way they operated,” Malchiodi said. “We designed Pelagos primarily as a data collection tool in support of research objectives for our sponsors, but because everyone could see the immediate impact on the way the ship used the system, it quickly elevated beyond that. Personally, it was a thrill to see just how well the ship took to the system. To engineers, that’s when we knew we did our job well.”

“It was great to sit down with the crew that operated it and hear from them how they were using it,” Porter said, “and see that they were using it for all the right reasons, and see how it improved how they did their job.”

“One of the perks of being at APL is working across many programs and hearing directly from a variety of sponsors about what issues they are having,” Malchiodi said. “We get to have conversations that are more about understanding their needs and working with them to provide a solution, rather than pushing an existing product or approach. On Pelagos, we had a lot of good support from both the NAVSEA and Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) community, as well as APL management in this regard. These types of discussions allowed all the sponsors to share a common vision, and they all have benefited from this collaborative effort.”

Media contacts:

Geoff Brown, 240-228-5618,
Gina Ellrich, 443-778-7796,

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit

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