Unmanned systems head to sea and opportunities follow

The Navy is investing more in unmanned systems and industry is looking for opportunities and ways to overcome some vexing technical challenges.

As budgets have steadily ticked upward, it also feels like the overall conversation surrounding unmanned and autonomous vehicles in the seas has grown in recent years.

In fact, a recent commentary to investors from the U.S.’ largest military shipbuilder helps illustrate the direction both that company and the Navy are headed toward regarding unmanned underwater vehicles.

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“If we're not moving towards a more unmanned future, we're going to miss an opportunity here,” Huntington Ingalls Industries CEO Mike Petters said in a May 2 earnings call. “Capabilities that have been created and will be created for the UUV space are going to feed right into the (unmanned surface vehicle) space, so we're intensely interested in that space.”

During that same call, Petters said that Huntington Ingalls is working with Boeing to build prototypes for the Navy’s Orca Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle program that he said “has given us a pretty good insight into where the UUV space is going.”

“I don't see them as being competitive to stuff that we're doing today. Frankly, if that's where the nation needs to go, then we need to be there and make sure that we get there with them and lead the way,” Petters said.

Boeing based its proposal on the company’s Echo Voyager vehicle, which is essentially a prototype unmanned submarine. The Navy has ordered five prototypes.

In a presentation at last week’s Navy League Sea-Air-Space Conference, Bloomberg Government analysts projected the Navy will invest more than $2.4 billion in UUV research between fiscal years 2020 and 2024.

But like many opportunities, there are also challenges to work through if the Navy and its industry partners embrace unmanned technologies with autonomy a key component of that shift.

“There is no real easy way to talk to a UUV when it’s under water,” said Dan Tubbs, Boeing’s deputy director of advanced technology programs for unmanned undersea systems. “If you happen to be close enough that you can have a few bits of communication, that’s really what it is. That’s really the biggest challenge with UUVs. There’s no way to tele-operate them because there’s no (communications) link.”

In essence: once underwater, the vehicle has to be autonomous. While Boeing is deferring specific questions about the Orca program to the Navy, Tubbs did offer a glimpse of how making and testing Echo Voyager has helped the company further mature the capabilities to make the vehicle work on its own.

Echo Voyager’s predecessors date back to the 1960s and include vehicles like Echo Seeker and Echo Ranger, all of which Tubbs said help the company incorporate lessons learned to make UUVs autonomous.

“As Echo Voyager goes out every day and does testing… we’re factoring that learning because we learn again every day, and that further builds on that autonomy,” Tubbs said.

Unmanned surface vehicles have a riddle of being powered and that is “the biggest technical challenge,” said Dave Allen, CEO of the Liquid Robotics subsidiary.

“We generate propulsion energy through wave motion, and solar to generate power for our payloads,” he added. “There’s still a limit.”

Along with the autonomous operation piece, another element Leidos is concentrating on in the unmanned sea arena is in data fusion to help operators make sense of the information going in and being collected by the vehicle.

“Every sensor will give you different characteristics of that single contact but the fusion engine inside of autonomy fuses that together,” Dr. Timothy Barton, Leidos C4ISR chief technology officer, told a group of reporters.

To achieve that fusion, Leidos is preparing to submit a proposal to the Navy for what executives termed a “Pathfinder” program to give sailors a single, more consolidated view of data and help them make decisions.

Leidos is also incorporating lessons learned from its work on the initial Sea Hunter autonomous vessel prototype for the Office of Naval Research and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“Sea Hunter One” is a step function for Leidos as it watches the Navy’s move to acquire a medium-sized class of unmanned surface vehicles, said Dan Brintzinghoffer, the company’s director of maritime business development.

“We’re pivoting from that baseline,” Brintzinghoffer said, “And now you want to transform that to the next thing, which is the MUSV program of record and developing that for the fleet, which is an evolution from Sea Hunter.”

He added that a second Sea Hunter vehicle is under construction to further cultivate that capability and incorporate lessons learned.

“What we will do for MUSV whenever it comes out, we will apply the lessons that we have right now, to be able to provide the most innovative solution in the autonomy area. It’s more than just the computer that’s running the decision, it’s everything that’s controlling the engines and power (and) whatever payload you want to integrate with.”

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