The U.S. Navy wants unmanned underwater vehicles that are faster, tougher and more reliable than the ones it has now. It wants them to be easy to deploy, including from ships and airplanes, and it wants them to have better sensors and longer endurance. And it wants them to be cheap.
That was the message from several speakers at the final day of AUVSI’s Unmanned Program Systems Review 2014.
Capt. Eric Wirstrom, director of the Maritime Operation Center at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, said his command is focused on reducing the “detect to engage” chain against mines, and unmanned underwater systems can help with that.
The current setup he has is “a great kit, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love it and the operators love it,” he said, but there are limitations.
The Navy conducted a recent proof-of-concept demonstration where a team deployed from a C-130, launched a small UUV, found a mine and neutralized it with a remotely operated vehicle.
“And all of that happened within three hours of exiting that aircraft,” he said.
In addition to better sensors, Wirstrom said he’d also like open-architecture software. The current kit requires three software packages to operate. The systems also need to be able to be operated by the current force structure and easily repairable in the field.
“I know I’m asking for a lot here,” he said. “… I told you I need it affordable, and I told you I need it fast, and I told you I need it made out of unobtainium, and I need it cheap, I need it cheap, I need it cheap.”
Other speakers reiterated that the Navy is looking for better, cheaper systems. Scott Livezey, technical and executive director for the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy, said Navy oceanographers have racked up more than 150,000 miles using underwater vehicles, dating back from the days when they were powered by nearly 10,000 D batteries welded together.
Autonomous vehicles, and especially gliders, have been “really a transformative technology for naval oceanography,” he said. “They untethered our survey ships from doing a lot of the oceanography that we used to do with a line over the side. … You can operate them where we can’t operate our ships. You can operate them in a typhoon, in a hurricane.”
That said, they could be better still, and he’d like to see systems with better batteries, more onboard automation, common control systems and increased speed. And they could be cheaper, as reduced unit cost “could enable swarming and air-dropped systems.”
Rob Simmons, assistant program manager for PMS 408, said explosive ordnance disposal technicians need systems that are easy to carry, easy to use, easy to fix and that can be deployed from a variety of platforms. And, of course, that are inexpensive.
“Affordability is critical,” he said. “These units conduct arduous missions in tough environments. We don’t intend to lose a vehicle, but if we lose that vehicle we do not want it to be mission catastrophic.”
While the remotely operated vehicle market has become integral to the daily function of oil and gas work, Bellingham said autonomous underwater vehicles are just starting to grow in prominence.
“The ROVs, they are established. They are there,” he said. “Is that market static? Absolutely not. They are always figuring out how to do new things with ROVs.”
Meanwhile, AUVs are gaining maneuverability and increasingly sophisticated senor suites, allowing better 3-D mapping than ever before.
The future of unmanned maritime operations will likely combine the two systems, said Bellingham. For instance, a surface vessel could deploy an unmanned surface vessel and multiple gliders, and the USV could ask as a relay node, which would then free up the ship to maximize its valuable, but expensive, time at sea. Alternately, future concepts could cut the ship entirely out of the equation, leaving a USV to be the primary communications node for deep-diving AUVs that could, for example, explore hydrothermal vents.
“It’s not really a magic thing,” he said. “… The point is that we’re actually beginning to do these things.”
WHOI, which has a history of fielding complex underwater technologies, dating back to Jason in the 1990s, is mirroring its future vision of unmanned collaboration with its structure. In 2012, it started up the Center for Marine Robotics, where Bellingham works, and the formation put the institute’s many unmanned efforts under one umbrella. Bellingham says he hopes this enables community building, not just within Woods Hole, but across the maritime community.
“It’s not about dividing up the pie that is. The pie that’s out there is a pretty good size pie,” he said. But the pie 10 years from now, if the community grows like he projects is “going to be much, much bigger.”
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