The Office of Naval Research—the scientific arm of the U.S.
Navy and Marine Corps—has converted a small, aging training
ship into a platform for testing new technologies intended for the
The vessel—known as the Afloat Lab, YP679—is a 108
foot-long wooden-hulled yard patrol craft, built in the mid-1980s
by Peterson Builders, of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Since the early days
of World War II, the Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md., has employed
such craft to teach midshipmen the arts of navigation and seamanship.
After the academy retired the craft in 1998, the ONR decided to
bring it back to life. Its mission now would be to see how promising
new technologies perform at sea—subject to salt, wind, extreme
temperatures, vibration and the motion of waves—before they
actually are installed on ships in the fleet.
The reason for ONR’s interest in the Afloat Lab is the same
one that made the vessel useful for midshipmen to learn the ropes,
explained the program manager, Capt. Sharon Elaine.
“It has the same machinery, electronics and navigation systems
as larger Navy ships,” said Elaine. “That makes it an
ideal platform for testing new technologies for shipboard use.”
Elaine is a Navy reservist on two years of active duty. In civilian
life, a computer software engineer from California’s Silicon
Valley, she is a 22-year veteran of the Navy, who has served on
a number of combat ships. She received this assignment, she said,
because her superiors at ONR “know I love ships.”
For about a year after the Afloat Lab was declared excess property,
it remained docked at Naval Station Annapolis, just across the Severn
River from the academy. During that period, “a lot of stuff
got pilfered—or perhaps I should say ‘borrowed,’”
said Joseph F. Mearman, senior electrical engineer for Anteon Corporation,
which operates the Afloat Lab under contract to ONR.
“They were going to throw the boat away,” he said.
“We recommended that ONR take it over.”
ONR agreed to do so, using a $1.5 million congressional plus-up
in its 1999 budget to refurbish the craft. The work included repairs
to the hull and replacing “a lot of sea-water valves, which
were in a very poor condition,” Mearman said.
The work, however, went quickly, he said. “In less than two
months, we were sailing laps out here in the Severn.” Operating
the Afloat Lab costs about $1 million per year, he said.
The vessel has been outfitted with the latest, cutting-edge technology,
he said. For instance, a self-healing communications network has
been installed, using what is called survivable automation technology,
or SAT. It is designed so that if one link is damaged, other parts
of the system remain functional, Mearman said.
The Afloat Lab takes its nickname, the “Starfish,”
from this technology, noted Elaine. “A starfish functions
without a brain, relying instead on radial nerves running the length
of each ray and connecting to other radial nerves via a nerve ringing
the body,” she said. Each starfish tentacle, she explained,
is capable of acting as the “leader” when the starfish
The Afloat Lab’s SAT operates under the same principle, Elaine
said. It allows vital ship systems to be restored automatically
after a communications break.
In all, the vessel has 185 sensors and actuators, controlled by
83 computers, located from stem to stern, Mearman said.
A high-resolution, 360-degree camera has been mounted on the craft’s
mast, providing views in all directions. This ability can be particularly
useful in protecting ships against terrorist attacks, such as the
one that disabled the USS Cole, Mearman explained.
“This camera can scan the horizon, looking for suspicious
activity, and it can zoom in across a harbor or along the dock to
get close enough to reveal actual facial features,” he said.
Improving Situational Awareness
ONR is working with the camera’s manufacturer—RemoteReality,
of Westborough, Mass.—and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center,
in Newport, R.I., to adapt it for submarine periscopes.
“While the Navy has used periscope technology for a long
time, we have found that most periscopes have a very limited field
of view,” said Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, chief of naval research.
“RemoteReality’s technology could provide us with a
high-resolution system to observe the submarine’s entire 360-degree
periphery and improve our situational awareness.”
A head-worn, high-resolution personal computer system, made by
Microvision Inc., of Bothell, Wash., presents images and information
to the user on a virtual 17-inch display. The system, known as Nomad,
enables hands-free access to information, such as diagrams, instrumentation,
maintenance records, moving maps and interactive training manuals.
Nomad features full, daylight readability, “allowing users
to view high-contrast images even in the most challenging ambient
lighting conditions,” according to Rob Sainsbury, Microvision
director of government business development.
With this device, the captain could steer a ship from anywhere
on the vessel, Elaine said. He or she wouldn’t have to be
necessarily at the helm. Also, she said, crewmembers could communicate
with each other from anywhere within the ship.
In addition to those technologies that are more or less a permanent
part of the Afloat Lab’s equipment, other projects are brought
on board temporarily for experimentation and demonstration. Typically,
they are set up in the craft’s combat information center.
When the vessel visited Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, earlier
this year, it had aboard:
On another cruise—to Washington, D.C.—the Afloat Lab
demonstrated a “Smart Valve” system, which uses embedded
sensors, microprocessors, communications hardware and automatic-control
software to detect and isolate ruptures in ship fluid systems. The
system is “an essential first step in conducting effective
damage control with fewer people,” according to Eric Runnerstrom,
a spokesman for the developer, MPR Associates Inc., of Alexandria,
Va. If one valve fails, the next one upstream will close to restore
pressure, Runnerstrom said.
There’s been no shortage of technologies for the Afloat Lab
to try out, Mearman said. “Every six months, it’s something
new,” he said. Recently, ONR and the Naval Research Laboratory
have considered putting sensors in the craft’s engines to
monitor oil quality. “We want to know exactly when to change
the oil,” Elaine said.
Many of the experiments and demonstrations conducted on the Afloat
Lab could be done in laboratories ashore, Mearman conceded. “But
rather than continue to look at blinking lights in some lab, we
decided that, sooner or later, we needed to try this stuff out onboard
a ship at sea, where the Navy is going to use it,” he said.
“The whole point of ONR research is to transfer new technology
to the fleet.”
The Afloat Lab is ideal for this purpose, Mearman asserted. It
has all of the operating systems of a much larger ship, but it is
small, with a crew of six engineers, he said. When the craft was
used to teach midshipmen, he explained, it typically had a crew
more than twice as large.
The Afloat Lab can operate close to shore, in the Severn or the
nearby Chesapeake. With 437 horsepower, twin-propeller Detroit Diesel
engines, it also can take on long cruises, sailing for 1,400 nautical
miles for five days without refueling.
The Afloat Lab’s pilothouse is equipped with Pathfinder radar,
Fishfinder sonar and Chartplotter GPS-assisted navigation system,
all made by Raymarine Limited, headquartered in the United Kingdom.
Until its divestiture in 2001, Raymarine was a part of the Raytheon
Company, of Lexington, Mass.
There are two radar systems, Mearman explained. “We have
built in a redundancy, so that in case we have a problem with one,
we have a backup.” The Chartplotter includes a world map,
enabling the little vessel to plot a course to any place on the
A major focus of the Afloat Lab’s work is on shipboard automation,
because of the Navy’s interest in downsizing crews. The concept
is quite controversial within the service, Mearman said.
“If you told a present-day captain that you were going to
take 200 sailors off his ship, he wouldn’t like it,”
he said. “I don’t think you could do it with a ship
in the fleet today. I don’t think that’s going to happen—not
Some naval officers remain dubious about the concept of replacing
sailors with computers since 1997, when the USS Yorktown suffered
a failure of computer systems installed as part of the Navy’s
Smart Ship project. Smart Ship is a system that computerizes many
aspects of a vessel’s operations, requiring a smaller crew.
The failure left the Yorktown dead in the water for a couple of
Navy officials, however, dismiss the failure as a temporary glitch.
The computers enabled the Yorktown—an Aegis missile cruiser—to
reduce its crew size by 10 percent and save more than $2.8 million
a year, they said. Smart Ship technology now has been installed
on a total of five cruisers.
Future Navy ships are likely to have even greater crew reductions.
Plans call for the DD(X) class of surface combat ships, now being
developed, to have crews of 125, rather than the 350 or so assigned
to present-day destroyers. The Littoral Surface Craft—Experimental
(LSC-X), a logistics ship that ONR would like to design specifically
to operate in coastal waters—also would have a small crew.
One concern that Mearman said that he often hears is how much training
is required to operate all of this high-tech equipment. “The
question I get all the time is, ‘Do crew members have to be
PhDs to use this stuff?’”
The answer, he said, is, “No.” Most of the equipment
is “pull and plug,” he said. “If something goes
wrong with it, you just unplug it and replace it,” he said.
To help the general public to get better acquainted with these
technologies, ONR is sending the Afloat Lab to visit major U.S.
ports. In addition to Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis, the craft
has visited New York City, Philadelphia and Norfolk. In New York,
earlier this year, the Afloat Lab showed off robots used in post-9/11
recovery operations at the World Trade Center.
The visits are apparently popular. In Washington, the Afloat Lab
attracted more than 700 visitors, including 23 congressional staff
members, many federal employees and military personnel, and students
from the National Defense University.
ONR hopes eventually to expand the visits to include ports along
the Southeast, Gulf of Mexico and perhaps up the Mississippi River.
With its small size and a draft of only eight feet, Elaine noted,
the Afloat Lab can reach locations that are out of reach for larger
“It’s a great platform to showcase Navy research,”