Navy’s Science Chief Targets Practical Fleet Concerns
The Office of Naval Research made headlines last year when its engineers fired a projectile from an electromagnetic rail-gun with a muzzle velocity of Mach 7.
But sci-fi projects increasingly are becoming luxuries for U.S. military laboratories, and pressure is growing on science shops such as ONR to deliver practical remedies to problems such as the rising cost of maintaining Navy ships.
The Navy still wants its $1.5 billion science budget to deliver groundbreaking technology, but with Pentagon spending about to start dipping, researchers will see growing pressure to produce tangible payoffs. For the Navy, that means tackling everyday fleet annoyances such as ship corrosion and repairing aging components, said Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research and director of test evaluation and technology requirements.
"This isn’t glitzy," he said in an interview. "It isn’t going to get you on the walk of fame in Hollywood."
Under the rubric of "total ownership costs," ONR is investigating new materials that could help prevent corrosion across the Navy’s 286-ship fleet, which boosts repair costs by $7 billion a year. ONR created a new coating that has helped to trim maintenance expenses for some ships by 35 percent, and developed a non-skid material that is more resistant to heat and cracking, Klunder said.
High-end science remains a goal, he said. "The leadership wants ONR to continue strong on ‘game changing’ technologies such as directed energy, autonomous unmanned systems, cyber and electronic warfare," Klunder added. "But by the same token, they want to ensure that we keep systems in the current fleet viable."
The Pentagon’s budget proposal for 2013, which projects spending cuts for the first time in more than a decade, has the armed services planning for smaller forces that also are better equipped and trained. Klunder said the projected downsizing offers an opportunity to exploit technology. In the Navy’s undersea force, for instance, there might be fewer attack submarines as construction of new boats gets delayed. But the Navy could fill gaps left by submarine cutbacks with robotic surveillance mini-submarines. "You save money and increase capacity with unmanned underwater vehicle technology," said Klunder. "You’ll see more [UUV systems] in the water over the coming year."
ONR promotes the use of digital simulations as substitutes for costly live training drills. In aviation units, for example, "When we train people, you’re burning fuel." With "immersive simulations," some of that expense can be avoided, he added. Marine Corps infantry units at Camp Pendleton, Calif., also are taking advantage of the new technology. " We put over 13,000 Marines through an immersive infantry trainer over last year alone."
ONR designed a simulator for sailors who need to prepare for counter piracy missions. They can practice how to board a hostile ship and handle dicey hostage scenarios.
Another way in which the military could save money is by adding new gizmos to existing aircraft so they can perform extra functions.
ONR has asked contractors to submit bids for a sensor kit that could turn conventional helicopters into robotic cargo delivery vehicles.
Under a five-year $98 million project, companies will be asked to design an "autonomous aerial cargo utility system" that could be used with any helicopter, said Mary (Missy) Cummings, project manager at ONR. Ground supply convoys in warzones are often targeted with buried bombs and rockets, so the military is looking for ways to increase aerial deliveries, Cummings said. An unpiloted helicopter, called K-MAX, already is being used by Marines in Afghanistan. But ONR’s technology is far more advanced, Cummings said. "K-MAX is elementary school and AACUS is college in terms of the kinds of technology advancements we are making." The AACUS system is a huge leap in artificial intelligence, she said. "It finds its own way through bad weather, through obstacles."
Autonomy in military vehicles, she said, means that "we’re not just controlling toys, we’re doing complex missions." She believes that systems such as AACUS could save the military billions of dollars over time because it would not have to buy new aircraft.
Cummings, who was a Navy fighter pilot for 10 years, flying F/A-18 Hornets and A-4 Skyhawks, is a pioneer in the design of accessible drone technology that anyone could operate from a smartphone or tablet computer.