Jon Harper, National Defense Magazine
5 March 2018
The Navy is moving ahead with unmanned surface and undersea vehicle development, and pursuing enabling technologies that will make the platforms operationally effective.
A wide range of USVs and UUVs are in the works, littoral combat ship program executive officer Rear Adm. John Neagley said during a presentation at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
“Those capabilities will be delivered over the next couple years and start to get into our procurements in ‘18 and ‘19 and really start hitting the fleet,” he said.
Neagley’s portfolio includes the unmanned maritime systems program office, PMS 406.
“LCS was built from the ground up to really leverage and take advantage of unmanned systems,” he said. “It’s a modular ship … [with] a lot of reconfigurable space.” It has a built-in capability for launching and recovering UUVs and USVs, he noted.
Unmanned vessels can range in size from small man-portable devices to extra-large platforms that are more than 50 meters in length. They allow the U.S. military to take warfighters out of harm’s way and perform certain missions more effectively and efficiently, he said.
Surface vehicles that are in the works include the unmanned influence sweep system minesweeper (UISS); the mine countermeasures USV (MCM USV); and the Sea Hunter medium displacement UUV, an anti-submarine warfare continuous train unmanned vessel.
Operational evaluation of the UISS is slated for spring 2018, and Milestone C is expected in the fourth quarter of this fiscal year, according to Neagley.
Construction and payload integration for the MCM USV is underway with initial operator testing in fiscal year 2019.
The Sea Hunter recently transitioned from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to the Office of Naval Research, where development and testing will continue.
The system could potentially transition to Navy operations this year, according to DARPA.
Undersea vehicles that are moving through the development pipeline include: the Knifefish for hunting bottom and buried mines; the Snakehead large displacement UUV for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and the Orca extra-large UUV for mine warfare.
The Knifefish has undergone sea acceptance trials, and Milestone C is slated for the third quarter of this fiscal year, according to Neagley.
Detailed design work on the Snakehead is in progress, and initial hull long-lead raw material is on order.
Design contracts for the Orca have been awarded, and follow-production is scheduled for fiscal year 2019.
Capt. Jon Rucker, Navy program manager for unmanned maritime systems, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has inquired about the possibility of accelerating the acquisition of “the entire family” of UUVs.
However, the service isn’t just looking for new unmanned platforms. They have limited value if they aren’t equipped with support systems, such as energy sources, autonomy and precision navigation, command, control and communications, payloads and sensors, and platform integration, officials noted.
“You have to consider all those key enablers to really kind of get the most out of that technology,” Neagley said.
Energy is critical for endurance, Rucker noted during a media briefing at the Surface Navy Association symposium in Arlington, Virginia.
In the near term, Rucker hopes to have lithium-ion batteries certified for platform integration. Officials are also in talks with the auto industry about fuel cells, he noted.
There are “more energy-dense technologies that aren’t ready today but we’re looking down the road so all the vehicles we design … you can take out the energy section and put in the new energy technology when it’s ready,” he said.
Autonomy and precision navigation technology are also essential.
UUVs are expected to deploy for an extended period of time in conditions where command, control and communications are more difficult than they are for surface vessels, said Lee Mastroianni, special projects officer at the Office of Naval Research.
They need to have environmental sensing capabilities and be able to adapt accordingly, he said.
“Whether it be in the Arctic or very shallow water or everything in between, we need to improve that autonomy so we have systems that can think, understand and adapt more to achieve their missions, recognizing that there’s a whole subset of sensors and payloads and stuff that feed into making those decisions,” he said.
USVs also have some unique challenges. There are complex rules when it comes to navigation, and the platforms must be able to operate in crowded waterways without human intervention. Combat situations would only add to the complexity of operations, he noted.
“That gets into the ability to understand a dynamic situation … and trying not to run into the other boats,” he said. “The algorithm aspect — that’s kind of what we’re really going after.”
Today, most autonomous systems operate on a rules-based or deterministic paradigm where machines are programmed to take certain actions in specific situations, Rucker explained.
By leveraging advances in artificial intelligence, the Navy hopes to reach the point where autonomous devices can shift to more open knowledge-based and probabilistic decision-making, and perform their own reasoning, he said.
At the end of the day, unmanned platforms are simply hosts for other capabilities, officials emphasized. Mastroianni said he views them as trucks that haul gear around.
“A UUV [by itself] does nothing for me,” he said. “It needs to have a mission, which means it needs to have some sort of payload, some sort of capability. It could be as simple as a camera [or] it could be some massively expensive, super-secret payload that solves world hunger.”
He continued: “It’s what goes inside of them that really makes the difference on whether it can support our needs or not. What kind of processing, what kind of sensors does it have on it? Are they lightweight enough in order to work in the environment that we need? And can I afford it?”
To prevent schedule delays and encourage technological maturity, the service is pursuing an incremental approach to capability development rather than try to “deliver a Cadillac right off the bat,” Rucker said.
Modularity is required to make that a viable strategy, he noted.
“Whether it’s an unmanned surface vessel or unmanned undersea vessel, we are ensuring that we develop that modularity and have the interfaces, so as [enabling] technology is ready we can insert it into the production line — not break the production line — and ensure we stay on track to deliver that capability,” he said.
Modularity will also allow the Navy to make unmanned platforms multi-mission capable by adding or swapping in new payloads. That is especially true for larger vessels, which have greater size, weight and power parameters than smaller ones, and are therefore able to carry more devices. For example, the Orca XLUUV will initially be a single-mission platform but it is expected to take on additional missions going forward, Rucker explained.
The service is looking to give industry opportunities to showcase their technologies. ONR has developed multiple “innovative Naval prototype” UUVs that recently transitioned to Rucker’s office. They have been delivered to unmanned undersea vehicle squadron 1 in Keyport, Washington, to give warfighters more experience operating large UUVs and elicit their feedback.
“We will then in ’19 open it up to industry if they want to come out and bring their sensors or payloads … so we
can then now test sensors and payloads on a vehicle that the fleet operates,” Rucker said.
Those efforts would inform programs of record. Later on, the technologies could be inserted into other vessels when they are proven and ready, he added.
However, acquisition officials won’t be lining up to buy new equipment if it isn’t cost effective, noted Frank Kelley, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems.
The aim is to “drive affordability into everything we do,” he said.
The service wants to buy large numbers of platforms and enabling technologies to conduct dangerous missions and swarming operations, he said.
“What we could do is have devices that do one or two or even three things really well … and then deploy that not in the hundreds but in the thousands,” he said.
With that in mind, high-priced equipment might be cost prohibitive in some cases, Mastroianni said.
“For a one-way mission [with a] high probability of loss, that isn’t a cost-benefit analysis that works too well in our favor,” he said.
As it pursues UUVs, USVs and enabling technologies, the Navy is working with a wide variety of industry partners including small businesses, startups and the commercial sector, Neagley noted.
Officials in the unmanned systems world are gung-ho about the arrival of James “Hondo” Geurts as the new assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. Geurts previously served as the acquisition chief at Special Operations Command, where he gained a reputation for rapidly procuring new technology.
He is bringing the same mindset to his new role, Rucker said. “One of the things he really challenged us on is … how do we go faster.”
Neagley said his office has special acquisition authorities that provide speed and flexibility in contracting and allow the Navy to reach a broad supplier base.
“We recognize that a lot of the innovation … exists in small businesses,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a way to reach into those small businesses to bring that technology into our systems.”
Officials expect unmanned maritime systems to conduct a wide range of missions in the future, including mine warfare, ISR, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare, armed escort and communications relay.
“UUVs, USVs for us is a growth industry [with a] tremendous amount of potential,” Neagley said.
They could transform the U.S. military’s minewarfare inventory, he noted. “As we transition our legacy mine fleet, that transition is largely a transition to unmanned systems.”
In the next five years, the Navy plans to issue conceptual design and detailed design and construction contracts for a new FFG(X) multi-mission frigate. Neagley expects it to have enough size, weight, power and modularity to support the deployment of unmanned vessels.
Looking further down the road, the Navy intends to acquire a future surface combatant USV, which could include a family of systems. Lessons learned from ongoing science and technology efforts will inform that project, Neagley said.
“As we finish up the analytical underpinning for that, we’re trying to make sure that … we look at what capability gaps the UUVs and the USVs can kind of go fill,” Neagley said. “Then we can … rapidly acquire those systems really to complement the larger fleet architecture.