Sponsored by The British Robotics Seed Fund
11 Jun 20. If the US Navy isn’t careful, its new unmanned tanker drone could face a 3-year delay. The US Navy could face a three-year delay in testing of the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based tanking drone if it doesn’t get its designated test ships through the required modernizations on time, a possibility the Navy said was remote.
Two carriers — Carl Vinson and George H.W. Bush — have limited windows to complete the installation of unmanned aircraft control stations, and if operational commitments intervene it could create significant issues for the program, according to Navy officials and a government watchdog report.
“Program officials stated that, among other things, the Navy’s potential inability to maintain its schedule commitments could require modifications to the contract that would impact the fixed-price terms,” the Government Accountability Office reported. “Specifically, the Navy faces limited flexibility to install MQ-25 control centers on aircraft carriers.
“If the Navy misses any of its planned installation windows, the program would have to extend MQ-25 development testing by up to 3 years. According to officials, such a delay could necessitate a delay to initial capability and result in a cost increase.”
Navy officials say a three-year delay is “extremely unlikely,” however the Navy has struggled in recent years to balance its modernization schedules with operational commitments, a problem that its “Optimized Fleet Response Plan” deployment rotation scheme was supposed to address. Ultimately, a delay would further push back the Navy’s ability to extend its carrier air wing’s range through unmanned tanking, critical to keeping the service’s powerful strike arm relevant against long-range guided munitions.
The Navy believes it can avoid a schedule delay and is working toward keeping the program on track, said Jamie Cosgrove, a spokesperson for Naval Air Systems Command.
“The Navy is still planning to achieve [initial operating capability] in 2024,” Cosgrove said. “A three-year extension of development testing and a delay to IOC is extremely unlikely and represents improbable scenarios where both aircraft carriers currently designated to support MQ-25 testing are unavailable due to operational requirements, or the program misses the planned periods to install the MQ-25 test equipment on those two carriers.
“Should either of these unlikely scenarios occur, the program will reevaluate the schedule and determine how to best mitigate schedule impacts to deliver the mission-critical MQ-25 to the Fleet ASAP.”
The specific alternations needed to operate the MQ-25 Stingray include special control and network equipment, Cosgrove said.
The program of record is the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Mission Control System and installing it will include setting up a control room known as the Unmanned Aviation Warfare Center on the ship. The equipment in the UAWC will include control stations, network interfaces and routing equipment, commanding and control equipment and network infrastructure, Consgrove said.
The Navy awarded Boeing an $805m contract to build the first four MQ-25 aircraft, with options for three additional aircraft. In April, the Navy announced it had exercised the option to the tune of $84.7m, bringing the total number of Stingrays under contract to 7.
Ultimately the Navy plans to buy 69 additional aircraft as part of the its full production run, according to the GAO report.
The Navy’s former air boss Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker told USNI Proceedings in a 2017 interview that the MQ-25 would extend the carrier air wing’s range by up to 400 miles.
The Navy has struggled to maintain its carrier schedules in recent years as the problems have arisen with carriers during their availabilities. For example, last year, the carrier Abraham Lincoln was extended on its deployment because its relief, the carrier Harry S Truman, was stuck in maintenance to repair unforeseen issues.
That can throw a monkey wrench into the Navy’s overstretched deployment rotation scheme, meaning that other carriers have their deployments extended while still others have their maintenance availabilities truncated to play catch up. But that can lead to even more problems down the road with differed maintenance and worn-out equipment that ultimately adds up to a significant readiness hole that is tough to dig out from.
All of this is exacerbated by crushing demands from Combatant Commanders for Navy forces overseas, which ultimately is driving the vicious cycle.
That means the Navy will have to manage the risk of impacting the Vinson and Bush’s upcoming maintenance availabilities to not set back the MQ-25 development cycle. (Source: Defense News)
10 Jun 20. Taiwan’s Navy Upgrades Drone Fleet. The Taiwanese military announced that in response to the January 2019 drone crash and other mechanical failures, its entire fleet of Albatross unmanned aerial vehicles is to be upgraded.
To prevent future crashes, the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCIST) has developed what it is calling the “Albatross Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Disappearance Source Management and Operational Reliability Improvement Program.” It has already upgraded 26 Albatrosses to improve mechanical stability and enhance flight safety, reported CNA.
Designed by NCIST, the Albatross UAV is Taiwan’s first domestically produced unmanned aircraft. It has reconnaissance and target acquisition capabilities and is primarily used to detect ships belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The drones were in September 2017 formally transferred from the Army Aviation and Special Forces Command to the Naval Fleet Command, which is now responsible for their combat readiness and maintenance.
During the UAVs’ first 10 years of service, the Navy will regularly study damaged drones and recorded data and suggest improvements to NCIST, according to the military. Simultaneously, the Navy plans to professionally certify UAV operators, strengthen simulator training, increase the qualification rate of operators, and improve flight safety.
The military stated that a staff of 26 qualified operators can meet the fleet’s combat readiness requirements.
The Navy announced last January that an Albatross UAV had managed to take the first aerial photographs of PLAN electronic reconnaissance vessel the Polaris. As of January 2019, the drones had detected 730 vessels both military and commercial.
Each Albatross drone has a 5.3-meter fuselage and 8.6-m wingspan. It can carry a payload of 55 kilograms and fly at an altitude of up to 4,000 m for a maximum of 12 hours. (Source: UAS VISION/Taiwan Times)
05 Jun 20. NATO begins Phoenix familiarisation and training flights. NATO has conducted its first familiarisation and training flight of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4D Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) the alliance is utilising for its Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme.
A Phoenix UAV prepares to depart Sigonella as NATO commences familiarisation and training flights for its AGS capability.
The commencement of flights, announced by NATO Allied Air Command on 4 June, saw one of two Phoenixes so far received depart Main Operating Base Sigonella on Sicily under the control of NATO AGS Force (NAGSF) pilots from the NAGSF Mission Operation Support Centre at the same location.
“Throughout the flight, pilots at the NAGSF operations centre controlled the aircraft via a pre-programmed flight path, from take-off [at 10:35 h local time] until landing at Sigonella, shortly before 20:00 h,” NATO said, adding, “During the flight, the Phoenix’s sensors collected imagery, which was transferred to the Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (PED) centre for near real-time processing, and future distribution to allies.”
The NATO AGS capability is to be centred around five Northrop Grumman RQ-4D Phoenix high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs that are derived from the Global Hawk Block 40 UAV. The Phoenix is fitted with Northrop Grumman’s Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) radar (designated AN/ZPY-2 in US Air Force service), which is an X-band active electronically scanned array (AESA) sensor with ground moving target indicator (GMTI), synthetic aperture radar (SAR), air track, concurrent moving target indication, cued search, and ground high-resolution radar modes. (Source: Jane’s)
08 Jun 20. Elbit Systems UK Demonstrated USV Capabilities in Anti-Submarine Warfare Trials of the UK MoD. Elbit Systems UK completed a series of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) trials with the UK MoD. The trials were delivered via Dstl’s (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) Progeny Framework, exploring how autonomous systems could support future ASW operations.
Elbit Systems UK was one of a shortlist of UK companies selected to take part in this second phase of the project – a series of live at sea trials which took place off UK coast with the Ministry of Defence in late October 2019.
Elbit Systems UK used its Seagull™ USV (Unmanned Surface Vehicle) for these trials, with the USA’s L3 Harris providing the sonar. Seagull™, Elbit System’s multi-mission, multi-sensor USV demonstrated her autonomous ASW utility to the UK MoD, across the entire trials period, utilising her ‘ASW Toolbox’ solution throughout to show how the abilities of this system to offer a force multiplier for ASW operations.
Martin Fausset, CEO of Elbit Systems UK, said: “Elbit Systems has world leading technology to offer to the maritime and littoral environment. The Seagull USV has once again, demonstrated its superior capabilities underlining Elbit Systems UK’s competitive position to providing innovative and cost-effective solutions to the UK Armed Forces. We are proud of our ongoing work with the Royal Navy as we work together to maintain its operational advantage.”
The Seagull Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) has multi-mission capability, being able to perform Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Electronic Warfare (EW), Maritime Security (MS), Hydrography and other missions using the same vessels, mission control system and data links.
Meanwhile its Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability provides the navy with a tactical advantage by deterring and threatening enemy submarines using an available asset with significantly lower risk. Seagull’s Mine Counter Measures (MCM) capability facilitates end-to-end mine hunting operations including detection, classification, localisation, identification and neutralisation of bottom, moored and drifting sea mines.
The Seagull is deployable with capability to operate from port or mother-ship, with two vessels able to be controlled from the same MCS (Mission Control System) and both manned and unmanned modes of operation, the latter featuring a high level of autonomy.
Seagull offers endurance of 4 days and mission sea-keeping of up to Sea-State 5.
Seagull has previously participated in bi-national MCM trials in the North Sea off the Belgian Coast organised by the Directorate General of Material Resources (DGMR) of the Belgian Defence Ministry, and has been used in a series of demonstrations alongside several global navies, including being deployed in 2018 by NATO forces in a joint ASW exercise alongside the Royal Navy’s Type 45 HMS Duncan and the Spanish Navy’s Santa Maria-class frigate “Victoria”.
More information can be found in the Seagull brochure:
About the Progeny Maritime Research Framework
The Progeny Maritime Research Framework was launched by Dstl to create a community of science and technology suppliers to support current and future maritime research projects. The Progeny Maritime Research Framework is worth up to £200m over 8 years and it is anticipated that requirements will be delivered by industry, including small and medium sized enterprises, and academia.
The Progeny Maritime Research Framework is supporting science and technology research for current in-service capability and the next generation of maritime technology. Examples of research areas it is addressing include unmanned systems, future submarine platforms and underwater communications and networking.
About Elbit Systems UK
Elbit Systems UK Ltd (ESUK) holds four wholly-owned subsidiaries as well as two joint ventures. In total, over 500 personnel are employed by the ESUK companies in the UK, in high tech roles in the defence, aerospace and rail sectors. The two joint ventures were formed in order to deliver the Watchkeeper programme for the British Army and to supply and support three fleets of aircraft within the UK MOD Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) programme.
Dstl – The science inside UK national security
The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) delivers high-impact science and technology (S & T) for the UK’s defence, security and prosperity.
Dstl is an Executive Agency of the MOD with around 4,000 staff working across four sites; Porton Down, near Salisbury, Portsdown West, near Portsmouth, Fort Halstead, near Sevenoaks, and Alverstoke, near Gosport.
What we do:
- Specialist Research that can only be done in Government
- Stewarding and maintaining capability
- Integrating S&T delivered by industry, academia, wider Government and allies
- Advice, Analysis and Assurance used in procurement, policy and operations
- Exploiting Intellectual Property to drive prosperity
- Supporting Operations
For more information contact the Dstl press office on 01980 956845 or 07384 210107.
04 Jun 20. Canada launches AI project to manage BVLOS search and rescue operations. Public Safety Canada has selected Kongsberg Geospatial, Larus Technologies and the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association of Canada (CASARA) to integrate geospatial software, artificial intelligence, and machine vision software to help develop new methods for the use of drones in search and rescue operations in remote communities in Canada.
The project will be funded by the Search and Rescue New Initiatives Fund (SARNIF) and has been dubbed OVERSEE – an acronym for “Optical Vision Enhancement and Refinement of Sensor Exploitation Effectiveness”. The OVERSEE project is intended to help address the unique challenges of conducting search and rescue operations in remote areas (such as indigenous communities in the Arctic and their immediate surrounding area) with UAS platforms.
OVERSEE will initially employ available search and rescue statistics from the Department of National Defence, CASARA, Transport Canada and other agencies and execute simulations driven by Artificial Intelligence. The AI will use Deep Learning techniques to investigate how BVLOS regulation effects SAR efforts that make use of drones, and how drones have been integrated most effectively in search and rescue operations, particularly for isolated indigenous communities in Canada’s North that don’t have quick access to Aeronautical search and rescue assets.
Ultimately the goal of this research is to help CASARA members and GSAR (Ground Search and Rescue) workers use BVLOS drones more effectively in search and rescue operations.
Kongsberg Geospatial will be leading the project, contributing their expertise in precision mapping, Air Traffic Management, and the development of multi-vehicle UAS control stations for BVLOS missions to help develop tools and procedures for the safe, effective use of drones for search and rescue missions in remote areas. They will also be contributing tools and training for machine vision techniques.
Larus Technologies specializes in Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems for defence applications, and will be contributing their Total::Perception™ simulation engine and Total::Vision™ computer vision technology to the project.
CASARA will be helping to gather drone video from training exercises throughout Canada in cooperation with its volunteers, as well as search and rescue event statistics from community organizations. Upon completion of the project, CASARA membership will help to circulate the SOPs derived from the project to their membership of Civil Air Search and Rescue workers and volunteers across Canada to ensure that everyone has access to the improved UAS SAR guidance.
While the project is primarily funded through Public Safety Canada’s SARNIF fund, all three partners will be making in-kind contributions in software licenses, technology, and professional services.
The OVERSEE project is expected to be completed sometime in 2021.
For more information visit:
04 Jun 20. Vertical lift drones brigades are assessing fly quieter with more survivability, soldiers say. Soldiers assessing aerial drones to help the Army replace its aging RQ-7 Shadow said the systems they’ve piloted can launch almost anywhere, offer a better chance of survival in combat against a peer adversary and have quieter motors that will prevent targets from detecting their presence.
“There have been times where the Shadow is too loud to fly too close to an enemy, so we can’t get many details on them,” said Pfc. Jacob Owens, a drone operator at the 1st Infantry Division who has been testing Arcturus UAV’s JUMP 20 at Fort Riley. “Quieter can be a huge advantage to us because we can get closer to get details on the camera, like read a license plate on the back of a car.”
Five brigades across the Army were selected to test unmanned aircraft systems and provide feedback to Army leadership looking to replace the RQ-7 Shadow, which was introduced in the mid-2000s. Owens and other soldiers spoke about the assessments they’ve participated in during a telephone call on Wednesday.
Information gleaned from the assessments will inform the Army’s future vertical lift cross-functional team as they develop specifications for a future tactical unmanned aircraft system, which is supposed to sport advances in maneuverability, agility, lethality and reach, according to Army Futures Command.
Futures Command began fielding the new drones to the five brigades across the force this spring, with 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, receiving Arcturus UAV’s JUMP 20 in mid-March.
JUMP 20 is the largest of the four drones being tested, weighing in at 210 pounds with an 18-foot wingspan, which is roughly similar to the Shadow.
Soldiers from 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, at Fort Riley, Kansas, help control Arcturus UAV’s JUMP 20 drone during an ongoing Army assessment. (Army)
The 17-hour flight time, vertical takeoff ability and reduced noise while in-flight will be a game-changer, said Sgt. 1st Class David Rodriguez, a platoon sergeant and standardization operator.
“Without the noise, it allows us to get closer to targets and identify them over longer periods without being identified by the sound of the motors as we fly overhead,” Rodriguez added.
The Army is looking for a Shadow replacement with reduced noise signature to retain the element of surprise and prevent targets from scattering if they see or hear the drone, noted the 1st Infantry Division Combat Aviation Brigade commander Col. Bryan Chivers, citing his experience in Afghanistan.
“You could have a Gray Eagle or Predator [drone] on station, observing a particular target, and when the Shadow would come on-station, you knew because somebody announced it and if you were privy to the operation, you could see them looking up to the sky and sometimes hearing this system,” Chivers said.
Vertical take-off is another specification the Army is seeking. It will allow launch and recovery at more locations, including austere ones without runways, and it should reduce the amount of equipment needed by soldiers.
Soldiers at the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, have been testing out Martin UAV’s V-BAT. The V-BAT is unique in that it sits on its tail end during launches. It has a lot less equipment, soldiers said, but its flight time is roughly the same as the Shadow.
“We can pretty much operate it anywhere; We don’t need a runway,” said Spc. Alexander Albritton, a drone operator at Fort Campbell.
A lot of the requirements the Army has put forth stemmed from an increasingly important operational need to be more “expeditious,” according to Maj. John Holcomb, the future tactical unmanned aircraft systems assistant product manager.
“One requirement we looked at for all the systems is the entire system could be loaded up on two Air Force 463L pallets and fit inside of a CH-47 [helicopter],” Holcomb said. “A Shadow system takes C-130s to get into theater and move around all the equipment that’s required.”
These future drone systems will allow tactical commanders to not rely on airfields, noted Lt. Col. Brian Angell, a squadron commander at Fort Riley involved in the tests.
That could be important in a future fight against peer competitors like China and Russia that are able to pound stationary airfields and hangers with long-range weapons.
“It opens up options,” Angell said. “We’ll be less predictable. We’ll be able to maneuver this system on the battle space quicker, set it up, operate it and move it to another location faster. So that’s a survivability standpoint, as well, that we’ll gain with this system.”
A brigade at the 2nd Infantry Division on Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington, began their own assessment of a third drone, Textron Systems’ Aerosonde HQ, this week, according to Army Futures Command.
Later in the summer, the 1st Armored Division at Fort bliss, Texas, is scheduled to test L3 Harris’ FVR-90 drone. Futures Command hopes to complete the fielding process with a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division in September, when the paratroopers will test a second version of Arcturus UAV’s JUMP 20 with different payloads.
The assessments will culminate with brigade-level combat training center rotations at Fort Polk, Louisiana, or Fort Irwin, California. Army officials have tentatively stated previously that the plan is to have the first unit equipped with a Shadow replacement sometime in fiscal year 2024. (Source: Army Times)
04 Jun 20. To compete with China, an internal Pentagon study looks to pour money into robot submarines. An internal study from the Office of the Secretary of Defense is looking to pour money into large robot submarines that the U.S. Navy says will free up its larger manned submarines for more complex missions, according to documents obtained by Defense News.
A study spearheaded by Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s internal think tank, the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, recommended the Navy invest in as many as 50 extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, or XLUUV, to massively boost the number of eyes the military has under the sea. That effort would be a fraction of the cost of Virginia-class attack submarines.
The study also recommends adding between two and three extra attack submarines over the 2016 force structure assessment that called for 355 ships, but the bulk of the new money will go toward unmanned systems.
The study, which envisions the fleet of 2045, is the same one that recommended the Navy drop to nine carriers from the current 11, and add dozens of large and medium-sized unmanned vessels to rapidly boost capacity for less money than it would cost to invest in a comparable fleet of larger manned vessels.
The Navy awarded a $43m contract to Boeing for the first four Orca XLUUVs in February 2019, and subsequently expanded the buy to five. The Navy plans to start buying two per year starting in 2023, according to a Congressional Research Service report from March 2020.
Together, the findings of the CAPE office’s study show what Esper has been saying publicly for months: that the U.S. Navy must get away from relying on large manned combatants to deliver capacity, and rapidly develop and field a fleet of unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles.
The Department of Defense previously declined to comment on the CAPE assessment, citing its policy not to comment on internal products that are “predecisional.”
Esper has taken a keen interest in Navy force structure, telling Defense News in March that he had directed CAPE, along with the Navy, to conduct a series of war games and exercises in the coming months to identify the path toward a lighter Navy. But, he said, any major decisions will be based around the completion of a new joint war plan for the whole department, which the secretary said should be finished this summer.
“I think once we go through this process with the future fleet — that’ll really be the new foundation, the guiding post,” Esper told Defense News. “It’ll give us the general direction we need to go, and I think that’ll be a big game changer in terms of future fleet, for structure, for the Navy and Marine Corps team.”
In recent comments at a small roundtable of reporters, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said the Navy’s latest force structure assessment, which is designed around a more closely aligned Navy and Marine Corps, would be completed by the fall.
The idea behind XLUUV is to take over missions that larger submarines, such as Virginia- and Los Angeles-class attack submarines, perform now but that shouldn’t require a $3bn hull to perform.
This is a problem that is exacerbated by an adversary that has proven itself more than willing to dump money into capacity that the U.S. Navy struggles to compete with, said Eric Wertheim, a naval analyst and author of “Combat Fleets of the World.”
“The whole project is one of those key areas, like directed energy, where the U.S. can play to its advantage of leveraging technology to offset its disadvantages when dealing with an adversary like China,” he said. “They just have the ability to throw large numbers out there, large numbers of people to man equipment with, and people are among the most expensive assets for armed forces — especially in Western countries.”
The missions that XLUUV would be most well-suited to perform are those that may be too dangerous for a larger manned boat, he said.
“You might be going into dangerous waters that otherwise you might not want to send manned personnel into,” he said. “But also, more importantly, is the kind of mission that Orca [XLUUV] would be doing, has the potential to help you deal with the kind of mentally and physically exhausting missions like anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare and intelligence collection where human senses get dulled over time.”
The Navy is also developing a family of unmanned surface vessels that are intended to increase the offensive punch for less money, while increasing the number of targets the Chinese military would have to locate in a fight.
That’s a push that earned the endorsement of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday in comments late last year.
“I know that the future fleet has to include a mix of unmanned,” Gilday said. “We can’t continue to wrap $2bn ships around 96 missile tubes in the numbers we need to fight in a distributed way, against a potential adversary that is producing capability and platforms at a very high rate of speed. We have to change the way we are thinking.” (Source: Defense News)
04 Jun 20. US Navy embraces robot ships, but some unresolved issues are holding them back. The U.S. military is banking on unmanned surface and subsurface vessels to boost its capacity in the face of a tsunami of Chinese naval spending. But before it can field the systems, it must answer some basic questions.
How will these systems deploy? How will they be supported overseas? Who will support them? Can the systems be made sufficiently reliable to operate alone and unafraid on the open ocean for weeks at a time? Will the systems be able to communicate in denied environments?
As the Navy goes all-in on its unmanned future, with billions of dollars of investments planed, how the service answers those questions will be crucial to the success or failure of its unmanned pivot.
Many of those issues fall to the Navy’s program manager for unmanned maritime systems, Capt. Pete Small. As the Navy puzzles out some very basic questions, it must also ponder some big organizational changes to maximize the potential of the platforms once they arrive.
“Our infrastructure now is highly optimized around large, very capable, highly manned warships,” Small said at the C4ISRNET Conference in May. “We spend a lot of time and effort preparing them for deployment, and we deploy them overseas for months at a time. They are almost perfectly reliable: We generally send them on a mission, they do it and come back almost without fail.
“For these distributed and smaller platforms, we’re going to have to shift that infrastructure — how we prepare, deploy, transit over and sustain these smaller platforms in theater.”
That question is critical because it will affect the requirements for how the systems are designed at the outset. In the case of the medium and large unmanned surface vessels under development, just how big and how rugged they need to be would depend on how the Navy plans to use them.
“All the scenarios we’re discussing are far forward,” Small said. “Far from the shores of the continental United States. So there is absolutely a transit somewhere — a long transit — to get these platforms where they need to be. We’ve got to come through that in a range of ways.
“For the medium and large [unmanned surface vessel] USV, in setting up the specifications and establishing what the requirements should be for unmanned surface vessels, crossing an ocean is a critical part of those missions.”
Making these platforms cost-effective is almost the entire point of their development, but questions such as “Should we design the vessel to be able to make an Atlantic or Pacific crossing?” can mean a big price difference.
“With a medium USV, we’re kind of on the edge of whether it’s big enough to cross the ocean by itself, and we’re learning, you know, how big does it need [to be],” Small said.
“You may be able to make it smaller and cheaper to get it to do the job you want it to do ultimately, but if it has to cross the ocean to get there, that might be the overall driving requirement, not the end mission requirement. If you are going to heavy-lift them and bring them over in bulk, well that’s a new concept and we have to figure out how we’re going to do that,” he added.
“What ships are we going to use to do that? Where do we operate from overseas? There’s a range of options in each case, but in general we’re going to have to transition from a system more optimized around our manned fleet infrastructure to a more distributed mix of large, highly manned platforms to smaller unmanned platforms.”
The introduction of entirely new platforms that operate without humans onboard mean that the Navy must think about how to support them downrange, Small said.
“We’re going to need to talk about things like tenders, heavy lift ships and forward-operating bases, things like that,” he said.
The idea of an unmanned vessel tender for the medium USV, which the Navy intends to use as a far-forward distributed sensor, is likely the best solution, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a retired submarine officer.
“I think it’s likely that they’ll be heavy-lifted into the theater, not because they can’t make it themselves but because in general it would be less wear and tear on the vessels,” he said. “You want that support to be relocatable as opposed to a group of guys working out of a building ashore. The whole purpose of them is to be flexible; and because they’re small, that would, in theory, give you lots of options as to remote locations you could operate from.”
The tender could be adapted from an existing platform in the sealift fleet for now, and ultimately procured as new later, Clark said, adding that the ship would need cranes and a platform near the waterline to support the medium USV and perhaps the planned extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle as well.
Additionally, the vessels should be stationed where the Navy has long-standing relationships, like Singapore, Souda Bay, Greece, Britain and the like, as well as where they are likely to operate.
The Marine Corps’ transition from a heavy force concentrated on large amphibious ships to a lighter force distributed around smaller ships and lighter amphibs may free up some platforms for porting unmanned vessels around the globe.
“As we change the deployment schemes for amphibious ships, that may afford the opportunity to have amphibs with well decks that are not full of Marines’ equipment but with unmanned vessels,” he said.
For Small, the questions that are most immediate are how to make the systems dependable.
“We plan to send these systems out to sailors who are at the forefront of the fight, and we need these systems to work every time and be reliable,” he said. “So, reliability is a fundamental issue associated with autonomous vehicles.”
Questions have been raised about things as basic as whether the Navy can get a marine diesel engine to run for days and potentially weeks without being touched by humans. But Small said that’s not what he spends a lot of time worrying about.
“For me, I think there is plenty of technology there and it will get better. I’m less concerned with, ‘Will the engine run long enough?’ and more concerned with the reliability of the system as a whole,” he said. “The autonomy running that vessel is a key aspect of the overall reliability of the system. So there’s a code and software aspect to this, but there is also the interface between that code and the hull, mechanical and electrical systems that we have on ships.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the human ability to detect subtle changes in the equipment they operate that is the toughest to replicate, Small said.
“It’s about self-awareness and the ability to self-diagnose problems and changing conditions associated with that equipment and react to those changing conditions,” he explained. “That’s either by alerting an operator or having an autonomous response that allows the mission to continue.
“A sailor would sense a vibration; a sailor would hear abnormal noise; a sailor would see something getting warmer, do the diagnostics and take actions. … There’s as strong a relationship between that and the overall reliability of those physical systems themselves.” (Source: Defense News)
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