Bridging the gap to autonomy
Over the past decade, even the most established western navies have faced significant challenges in attracting new recruits, as well as retaining personnel. To help address resourcing and budget challenges, newer warships are now being designed to operate with fewer crew than their predecessors. We’re already witnessing this with today’s newer naval platforms, for example the UK Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers which are crewed by just 700 hands, only increasing to 1,600 when carrying and operating a full complement of aircraft and helicopters.
Additionally there are other significant benefits to embracing lean crewing to reduce the number of personnel in the line of fire. Can providing more shore-based roles help to improve quality of life and hence retention? As artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent system (IS) technologies continually advance, future warship designs of tomorrow can deliver huge advantages, employing autonomy in Dull, Dangerous and Dirty operations.
AI and IS: The driving forces
From advanced uncrewed platforms and sophisticated sensing and detection technologies to automated offboard systems, AI, automation and robotics are already making a big difference to operations and are excellent examples of how cutting-edge technology drives digital transformation in changing the way navies operate.
Now, these new technologies offer a wealth of possibilities and opportunities to counter and embrace the future battlespace. Whilst today there remains a requirement to send hundreds of people to sea on a single ship, future operations could see autonomy used across more and more systems, supporting the transition to platform designs that set a new paradigm in naval operations.
The use of automation for significantly reducing crewing levels is vital to the defence modernisation plans of many maritime nations, but this transition will be most effective for navies looking not to replace humans, but to create a highly efficient combined Human-Autonomy Teaming approach that amplifies the benefits of both. However, driving this level of change in operations does not come without risk. Introducing new technologies and ways of working could not only cause significant technical changes, but it will have an impact on culture and crew wellbeing, and so this transition is best delivered through the gradual rollout of research and future-facing projects.
The impact of autonomous operations
In the industry, current research covers three key parts of the umbrella of automation. First the technical, or practical elements — capability, expectation, safety and modelling automation in real-life situations, such as in robotics and autonomous vehicles. Secondly, research is looking at the more ethical and human elements which centre around decision making and accountability and what this means for the human and machine relationship. And thirdly, the industry is addressing the issue of governance — or more specifically, why autonomous systems are potentially so difficult to govern.
Highly Autonomous Warship Vision
Recently at the DSEI defence and security exhibition in London, BMT unveiled its Highly Autonomous Warship Technology thought leadership programme and paper, describing the core enabling technologies and philosophies behind a lean crewed warship of the future.
The paper creates the context to help bridge the gap between current and future vessel operations, and lays out a vision for a middle ground between traditionally crewed vessels and a potential future of full autonomy. The project seeks solutions that will allow navies to reduce the number of people who need to be in high-threat environments, and to help to find a balance of autonomy and crewed operations. This concept, called lean crewed, doesn’t drive to remove people from operations entirely, instead the purpose is to keep highly experienced and skilled crew doing what they’re good at, and to apply technology and automation in areas where they can deliver the most benefit.
The transition towards a Highly Autonomous Warship can provide many exciting and distinct advantages for the future naval fleet, however the flexibility of maintaining an optimised crew also has significant advantages. Can a Highly Autonomous Warship Maintain the best of both worlds? Because of Autonomy a vessel could have reduced through-life and faster reaction times with automated responses. However, because of an optimised crew presence a vessel can maintain asset flexibility, provided command & control for offboard autonomous systems and enable the cost-effective implementation of autonomy.
The Highly Autonomous Warship concept looks ahead to a 2040 Vision highlighting the technologies that could be possible in this timeframe. In laying out the roadmap for highly autonomous naval operations, the paper examines different philosophies from BMT’s technical experts focusing on seven key areas: navigation, warfare, recoverability, logistics and maintenance, platform systems, human factors and cybersecurity.
This workstream has incorporated learnings from commercial maritime best practices as well as examining threats related to electromagnetic and AIS deception and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) degradation or denial. There is no one single technology that can completely replace GNSS, but there are different methods that have different levels of accuracy depending on the situation. For example, signals of opportunity are not always apparent by when they are there, they can be extremely useful. The same can be said again for automated celestial navigation which is only truly effective at night time. By utilising this layered approach you can have greater confidence in your assured position at any one time, having a range of sources for your location. If one of those technologies is unavailable or being spoofed then you can highlight it quickly and utilise the others.
Maritime forces operating in battlespaces where tensions can escalate quickly must be capable, collaborative, and able to share information at the speed of relevance. Lean crewed highly autonomous warships will form part of a layered approach by deploying smaller vessels to conduct operations and collaborate and share big data, freeing up operators to focus energy elsewhere. This will minimise the requirement for the crew to be in the direct threat environment and enable persistent, collaborative and flexible operations.
Traditional damage mitigation and recoverability measures rely on human-led firefighting, flood control and repair. On a lean crewed platform, it’s not about how to automate these tasks, but how to utilise greater engineering situational awareness together with robust design philosophies to deliver enhanced recoverability. With advancements in functions such as flinch technology and augmented fire protection, and with a robust data infrastructure, crews can gain a greater situational awareness that allows them to protect the vessel and the crew. When these capabilities are incorporated alongside day-to-day functions, recoverability becomes an inherent aspect of the design.
- Logistics and maintenance
Complex maintenance tasks that require significant flexibility are not obvious opportunities for automation. Instead, lean crewing can be embraced by increasing the reliability of the system and following a predictive maintenance approach. This allows for the streamlining of routine maintenance and repairs when the vessel is in port, and means that system redundancy can be used to manage any reliability and availability shortfalls. The technology needed to enable this would be centred on monitoring, remote operating centres, and digital twins to assess and diagnose issues before breakdowns occur.
- Platform systems
Power and propulsion systems are the most critical platform systems onboard, and they typically require a minimum level of crew to operate safely. Reduced husbandry can be achieved through the adoption of modern remote monitoring technologies (e.g. for leak detection), and by a move to real-time, adaptive condition based maintenance that will protect the operational integrity of these systems and ensure vessels maintain a continuous propulsion capability.
- Human factors
Autonomy will not exist in isolation, but rather as part of a larger system. As such there will always be a system boundary for autonomy, and at this boundary there will undoubtedly be an interface with human operators. Systems thinking is required to ensure that these boundaries are appropriately drawn and that potential risks are assessed on a system-by-system basis across the entire scale of operation. It is important to ensure that any relationship between autonomy and humans plays to the strengths of each.
Increasing the number of autonomous systems in a platform potentially increases its attack surface, and with fewer crew members onboard to observe system performance, reliance on autonomy can mean that cybersecurity issues go unnoticed for longer periods. For highly autonomous warships, the application of ‘secure by design’ principles should be employed to ensure that these potential issues are considered early in the design lifecycle. This, along with a holistic view of security risk in the context of operational capability and physical system limitations, will provide an appropriate risk balance whilst maximising the operational advantage delivered by the vessel.
The technology roadmap
As navies look to make the journey to higher levels of autonomy, it’s important to consider the technological capabilities we have today, where we are looking to be with highly autonomous vessels, and how we will get there. As part of the highly autonomous vision, BMT has created a roadmap of the key enabling technologies that will deliver the highly autonomous operations of the future. In the roadmap, the Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) of each technology are assessed and the projected development path suggested based on what could be achieved with suitable support and funding in place.
The roadmap looks at technologies such as Deep Learning, which allows machines to absorb huge quantities of data with highly complex relationships and to analyse the information to find trends and deliver insights and intelligence. Decision-making processes like this will play an important role in ocean autonomy, and plotted against the timeline, Deep Learning in many forms is already in place today.
In comparison, the roadmap also assesses those technologies that will remain in the ‘idea’ phase for the foreseeable future. Take flood control systems for instance. As one of the biggest challenges for a lean crewed highly autonomous warship, it is currently beyond the ability of automated systems. Right now, there is no ’silver bullet’ to this problem, but instead a few areas of development such as airbags to counter lost buoyancy. This particular technology highlights how human interaction is still necessary onboard in some instances – whilst automated technologies can support detection and in some cases countermeasures for flood control, you still need human decision-making and the ability to put physical measures in place to mitigate the threat to the vessel and the crew.
The future fleet: What’s next?
Over the next 20 years, BMT expects to see the increased adoption of offboard autonomous systems, coupled with higher levels of automation and high trust systems onboard naval vessels, with human interaction still required to perform certain operational and decision-making functions particularly where ethical considerations or operational complexity make the application of autonomous systems a risk rather than a benefit. To support this, highly autonomous naval vessels will need to enable a small number of personnel to conduct operations and make key safety decisions while the vessel itself will largely operate autonomously with minimum operator interaction.
Some of the technologies identified are already onboard vessels operating today, and if not, they could easily be introduced to existing platforms with minimal interruption. However, there is a definite tipping point where the full integration of low maintenance platform systems and lean crew enabled recoverability features will require a dramatically different platform design. To understand fully what is needed, a lot more work needs to be done.
BMT is now looking to bring together the current state-of-the-art academia and the wider industry to work on this concept. Through engaging with customers, government bodies and industry we are gaining a detailed understanding of the mandate for this kind of vessel, and through this we will be able to help identify and mitigate key risks. By taking this approach, rather than accepting the risks of integrating technologies onto vessels without a full sight of the impact on the vessel, the crew and the operation, we can evaluate these technologies and integrate them in stages. Furthermore, we can apply learnings and intelligence to find the best possible synthesis between the crew and the technologies, making the move towards higher autonomy more coherent and more effective in the long run.
Future facing projects will bring together expertise to not only drive innovation forward, but to build credibility and trust. Capability is only one part of the puzzle — to bring the ideas to fruition, safety needs to be guaranteed, and that will take many more years of research to prove. That is why some of the biggest challenges evaluated under BMT’s Highly Autonomous Warship vision are not just technological, they are organisational and cultural too. Existing processes will require a huge amount of development to embrace the full benefits of new autonomous technology.
Through the Highly Autonomous Warship vision, we are not claiming to provide all the answers, but we do want to pose the right questions and consider all of the opportunities and challenges in the first step towards understanding autonomy in warship design.