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Autolycus (submarine detector)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Soviet Whiskey class diesel submarine
A Soviet Whiskey class diesel submarine

Autolycus or Sniffer [1] was a method for detecting diesel-engined submarines from aircraft. It was designed to detect exhaust fumes from their diesel engines.[2] Named after the mythical Greek, Autolycus, who took part in the search for the Golden Fleece, it was developed by the British during the early Cold War period. The first version of Autolycus was deployed on Shackleton aircraft in the mid-1950s, with an improved version re-appearing in the mid-1960s.[3]


Until the end of World War II (WWII), submarines spent the majority of the time on the surface, powered by their diesel engines. They could submerge for only short periods during and after the attack. This made them easy to detect on radar, and by 1943, radar-equipped aircraft had made submarine operations difficult.[citation needed]

Late in WWII, the German Navy introduced the first submarine snorkels, which provided air to the crew and the engines, allowing the submarine to remain submerged just below the surface. This allowed them to avoid most radars, as well as allowing them to approach convoys more closely on diesel, extending the range they could run on batteries. Designs like the type XXI U-boat were the first submarines to operate primarily submerged.

After World War II, this emphasis on submerged operation, battery capacity and higher submerged speed continued. In the US, the GUPPY program rebuilt wartime submarines to emphasise these features. In the Soviet Union, the four Type XXIs that were assigned to them by the Potsdam Agreement formed the basis for their Whiskey class.

In the 1950s, the Fleet Air Arm were flying in the North Sea and the GIUK gap for patrol and potentially anti-submarine warfare in search of Whiskey, Zulu and Foxtrot submarines. Patrol aircraft operated from RAF Ballykelly in Northern Ireland.[3] A means was needed for the initial detection of submarines in the area. Once detected, other methods such as radar or sonobuoy hydrophones could be used to track and target the contact.


Shackleton MR.3
Shackleton MR.3

Autolycus was an ion-mobility spectrometer (IMS).[4] This is an early technique of extreme sensitivity and was a major technique for the initial detection of an unseen submarine.[2]

An IMS measures how fast a given ion moves in a uniform electric field through a given atmosphere. The spectrometer separates ions by shape and charge, so that different species arrive at the detector at different times. Typically this is used to produce a mobility profile characterising the sample. For Autolycus, a boxcar integrator sampled the times for known markers within diesel exhaust. Display to the operator was on a continuous paper printout.[5]

The Autolycus technique was developed and first tested during World War II on warships.[6] After the war, the Mk. II version became light enough for airborne use. Fast-moving aircraft were better able to locate submarines by travelling in search patterns.

Early Mk II versions of Autolycus suffered from calibration difficulties in high humidity and stopped working altogether in rain. These problems were reduced in the Mk. III version.[6] This also had better time discrimination, giving better position fixes. On the Shackleton the air scoop for the system was located on the port side of the aircraft nose.

Search patterns

As Autolycus detected fumes from the submarine, rather than sound emanating from the hull, it could detect the passage of a submarine for some time after it had passed. This aided searching, as it did not need to pass directly overhead. A zig-zag search pattern was flown, passing at right-angles over the likely direction of submarine movements. When an exhaust plume was detected, the aircraft would begin to fly a tracking pattern of progressively shorter zig-zags. Each crossing of the plume trail would be plotted, giving a map plot of the submarine's likely track. As the track was narrowed down, the aircraft would switch sensors to a more precise method, such as centimetric radar or dropping sonobuoys before potentially closing for an attack.[7]


Autolycus was withdrawn for a number of reasons. The most immediate one was the withdrawal of the Shackleton carrier aircraft and their replacement with the Nimrod MR1. Nimrod was fitted with Autolycus, but this legacy equipment was no longer considered to be a first-line technique and so it was not integrated into the new tactical display system, based on an Elliott 920 digital computer.[8]

The Nimrod was equipped with a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) tail boom. MAD was considered to be more capable than the Autolycus approach and could also detect submerged submarines operating without diesels or the increasing threat from nuclear submarines. MAD had not been successfully fitted to the Shackleton, possibly because of interference problems from the piston engines and their ignition system.[citation needed]

Although the main submarine threat at the time of Autolycus' withdrawal was still the diesel-engine Golf and Juliett class submarines, increasing numbers of the nuclear-powered Hotel and Echo II were in service in this region.[9] As these did not need to snorkel and did not produce diesel exhaust they were effectively undetectable by either the Shackleton's Autolycus or its ASV Mk 13 radar.[10]

One of the cited limitations for Autolycus was a lack of discrimination between submarine exhaust, trawlers and on-shore sources.[2] In practice this does not appear to have been a major limitation as it was used for initial detection, not identification or tracking.[11]


  1. ^ Reed Business Information (3 June 1971). "Detection Technology For Tomorrow". New Scientist. Reed Business Information. p. 570.
  2. ^ a b c Friedman, Norman (1997). The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems, 1997-1998. p. 662. ISBN 9781557502681.
  3. ^ a b "Ballykelly's Shackleton Era 1952–1971". 2001. Archived from the original on 2004-02-25.
  4. ^ G.A. Eiceman, Z. Karpas (2005). Ion Mobility Spectrometry, Second Edition. CRC Press. p. 12. ISBN 0-8493-2247-2.
  5. ^ Bentley, John (27 November 1969). "Airborne Watchkeeper". Flight International: 847.
  6. ^ a b Gibson, Chris (2015). Nimrod's Genesis. Hikoki Publications. pp. 22–24. ISBN 978-190210947-3.
  7. ^ Gibson (2015), p. 23.
  8. ^ Neal, Molly (22 January 1970). "Nimrod: Systematic Sub Hunter". Flight International. 97 (3176): 127.
  9. ^ Gibson (2015), p. 13.
  10. ^ John Marriott (30 September 1971). "Avionics". Flight International: 547. There are two other methods of detecting a submerged submarine from the air. The first, called Autolycus in Britain and Sniffer in America, is a device which detects the fumes emitted by a diesel-powered submarine into the atmosphere. It is not a primary means of detection and at best it can only tell the aircraft that a diesel submarine was recently present (and has now dived), or is present but for some reason the snorkel has not been detected. As more and more submarines become nuclear powered the device will lose its already limited usefulness.
  11. ^ DEFE 67 Ministry of Defence (Navy): Operational Evaluation Group and Submarine Tactics and Weapons Group, and Joint Anti-Submarine School (JASS): Reports and Notes (1957). "Report on experience with Autolycus Mk 2 against snorting submarines". DEFE Records of the Ministry of Defence, Records of Scientific Research. DEFE 67/112.
This page was last edited on 9 April 2021, at 02:13
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