The Navy recently experienced sticker shock when estimates for a robotic mine-hunting vehicle came in at more than $12 million apiece, or 51 percent higher than expected.
The troubled “remote mine-hunting system” once again has drawn attention to the Navy’s difficulties in developing and deploying robotic systems from ships. Several programs during the past two decades were launched and then sputtered as a result of either unaffordable prices or simply inadequate technologies that weren’t suited to the demands of the fleet.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead in recent months has directed Navy planners to boost funding and to speed up the design and production of unmanned systems. But he cautioned against pouring money into technological pipedreams that the Navy can’t afford. His pitch is backed by recommendations of the Naval War College’s strategic studies group, which concluded that the Navy needs to do a better job equipping ships at sea with robotic systems to help automate tasks currently done by sailors, and to improve ships’ capabilities to detect mines and other threats.
One of the problems with earlier attempts to build unmanned vehicles was that they did not interact well with existing ships and communications systems, Roughed said in a speech at the Brookings Institution last fall.
Every ship in the fleet today will be in service at least through 2020, so the Navy does not have the luxury to design unmanned vehicles that can’t be deployed from older ships, Roughead said.
A huge obstacle to deploying more robots in the Navy — and partly the reason why the remote mine-hunting system ran into budget problems — is the acquisition bureaucracy, Roughead said. “We have some inertia to overcome because of the way that we work on things in the Pentagon, the procurement system. … If we don’t break out of those old ways and think about new deployment concepts, I’m not sure that the investments that we make will move us that much faster into the future.” The speed at which technology moves means the Navy must change the way it determines system requirements so it doesn’t end up with obsolete technology by the time an unmanned vehicle enters service, Roughead said.
The next hurdle the Navy must overcome is often the lack of interoperability between robotic systems and the rest of the fleet. “I am often struck that as we talk about unmanned systems we’ve really become enamored with the vehicle itself and there has been very, very little discussion and arguably little work on … the network and the architecture of the network, how the information will be moved, what are the redundancies that you would have in place, and what are the common protocols that are going to be required,” he said.
In the area of autonomous underwater vehicles, Roughead said, the Navy is not taking advantage of existing technology because its “operational concepts” are not flexible enough to allow the adoption of new systems. “I’m very interested in trying to move forward with autonomous underwater vehicles,” he said. “We are farther ahead technically on some of the underwater systems than we are operationally.”
In late 2009, the Navy published a solicitation for the development and production of two lightweight autonomous underwater vehicles that would be used for search and surveillance. Industry proposals are being evaluated this summer.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, echoed Roughead’s call for greater use of unmanned underwater systems for surveillance and patrolling. “The role of unmanned systems is evolving to the point where we are now surveying our country’s harbors. … So I think that when you look at expeditionary warfare and mine warfare, that is where unmanned systems can play an extremely significant role,” Greenert said at the NDIA Expeditionary Warfare conference in Panama City, Fla.
Manufacturers of robotic systems, meanwhile, are hopeful that Roughhead’s rhetoric will translate into actual purchases of new hardware.
“It’s helpful that the CNO is saying the right things, and that these discussions are being elevated,” said Edison Hudson, a senior executive at iRobot’s underwater vehicles research division.
The company is working on low-cost smart robots that can find and destroy mines underwater, said Hudson. One of the most successful is the “Seaglider,” which can stay out at sea for up to nine months. The Navy’s oceanographer has purchased 11 vehicles for research and to collect climate and oceanographic data.
The company also is working on 30- to 60-pound “expeditionary” underwater robots that could be deployed by a single operator or a squad of Navy SEALs.
Previous generations of these underwater surveillance systems were much larger and more complex, said Hudson. “We’re looking at how these small systems can be integrated into other unmanned systems or traditional vessels.” Small robots also could be launched from sonobuoys, he said. These are relatively small expendable sonar systems that are dropped from aircraft or ejected from ships.
The Seaglider, which weighs 110 pounds, can be launched from inflatable rafts or fishing boats, he said.
The next phase is to develop expendable vehicles, said Hudson. But it may take a long time for the Navy to rewrite its operations manual to accommodate such vehicles.
“The challenge is to develop concepts of operations and to get ‘buy-in’ from programs,” he said.
The Navy would greatly benefit from autonomous robots that could destroy mines, Hudson said. Currently the process is highly labor intensive. A human operator guides the neutralizer from a helicopter that has to hover above the mine. “We foresee this being replaced by autonomous systems that can take cues from a survey ship,” he said. The robot could survey an area, identify the location, mark it, and then pull away and request a neutralizer. “We have demonstrated this to the Navy, but they have not followed up in the acquisition yet.”
At iRobot, engineers believe these countermine vehicles can be made at relatively affordable prices, Hudson said. “We’ll be able to take advantage of general-purpose designs. … Instead of $1 million systems, we’re talking about $100,000 systems.”
The company has built several man-portable unmanned underwater vehicles that could soon be ready for real-world use, he said.
Miniaturization and digital technology are far more advanced than when the Navy purchased its current unmanned underwater vehicles in the 1990s, Hudson said. “Just by using modern electronics you get a size and power advantage. … A lot has been done in imaging sonar to make high-resolution sonars that are compact.”
With vehicles as small as four to five inches in diameter, “We can do things that are quite extraordinary,” he said. “Battery technology is not improving at the rate that computing power is, but it is improving.”
Details on the long-term outlook for naval underwater robots are expected in the Navy’s updated master plan for unmanned underwater vehicles, which has not yet been released.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget Rear Adm. Joseph Mulloy, said the Pentagon requested $99 million in fiscal year 2011 to study energy sources and unmanned control technologies for new systems. “We’re actually looking at a plan that lays out [technology requirements] in both our air vehicles and our undersea vehicles.”