The German MUM is the Mother of All Drone Subs


Unmanned underwater vehicles – or UUVs – come in all shapes and sizes.  But nothing quite compares to the Modifiable Underwater Mothership – or MUM – that is being developed in Germany.

German shipbuilder TKMS is designing its new sub – reportedly the largest in the world when fully commercialized  – to perform a wide range of civilian missions, from heavy cargo transportation and strategic infrastructure inspection to offshore oil and gas and mineral resource exploration.

TKMS says the sub’s “flatfish” design – about 82 feet long by 25 feet wide — is unique.  The craft is designed to either float on the water’s surface, or to dive deep underwater.   It’s powered by hydrogen fuel cell AIP (air independent power) propulsion but can be supplemented by lithium-ion batteries at peak payload.   That massive payload – weighing as much as 10 tons – can include smaller UUVs or remote observation vehicles (ROVs) that the “Mother” sub can carry and place on the ocean floor. (Hence, its clever maternal acronym, MUM).

Given its size and stability, MUM can operate all year round, day and night,  in all-weather conditions.  With its fuel cell motor and sustainable battery power, the sub can also operate autonomously for weeks and is ideally suited for ecologically sensitive underwater worlds.  In its first year of pilot operation, TKMS hopes to deploy the craft for a variety of marine inspections, especially relating to offshore wind power plants.   Eventually, MUM – which won’t be ready as a complete prototype until mid-2024 – can be fitted with drills to conduct probes of the seabed and to collect marine habitat samples.

Inevitably, debate over the MUM’s military applications will surface.  Oil pipelines and communications cables that line the seabeds of the world’s oceans and sea are privately owned – but are of great interest to national militaries.  But the question of who really “owns” these resources remains completely unclear.

Other countries including the United States, the UK and Australia are developing “dual purpose” UUVs, partly with an eye to future seabed resource competition.  China and Russia make no secret of their intent to exploit its new fleet of UUVs for military warfare.  France is also viewing the seabed and underwater surveillance and exploration through a distinctly military lens. The German Navy is focusing on strategic data collection – and the MUM, or some version of it, might eventually be pressed into military service.

But even that prospect is a good two years off, industry observers say. TKMS, for its part, is staying “mum” about its new sub’s “other” possible applications.  It’s a mother ship after all, and for now, the company is just proud to have given it birth.

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