Navy, Industry Eager to Develop Bigger Robo-Ships
Austal concept art
As the Navy’s first medium-sized robotic ship, Sea Hunter, sails the waters off the California coast, its next iteration is being built in a shipyard thousands of miles away in Mississippi.
Construction on Sea Hunter II will be completed by the end of the year, officials at lead contractor Leidos say.
The two robo-ships may be a harbinger of things to come as the Navy uses the prototypes to develop tactics, techniques and procedures and ponders how to integrate them into operations.
In 2017, the Official of Naval Research tasked Leidos to develop Sea Hunter II — an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle — with a $43.5 million contract to build the platform.
Leidos developed the first Sea Hunter under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was christened in 2016 as part of the agency’s anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel program.
“Every single decision that has gone into Sea Hunter I and Sea Hunter II was all about redundancy because there would not be a human on there to go change a filter or go flip a switch,” said Donnelly Bohan, vice president and division manager of the maritime systems division at Leidos. “We also needed that vessel when it was underway to behave and to be trusted just like a manned ship would behave.”
Sea Hunter II is currently under construction at a plant in Gulfport, Mississippi. Leidos has created a “hub” for unmanned surface vessel development in the region, with testing and integration in Long Beach, Mississippi — just a few miles from the Gulfport plant — to produce robotic ships, said Dan Brintzinghoffer, vice president of maritime business development at Leidos.
“We’ve co-located the development, the hardware integration and the construction of the ship into one location ... in the Gulfport-Long Beach area,” he said during a call in March. A subcontractor, United States Marine Inc., is constructing the boat.
Portions of the capability being developed at the Long Beach facility include construction of the interior electronic systems, electrical distribution capabilities and construction of what “houses the brains of the system,” Brintzinghoffer noted.
Bohan said Sea Hunter II should be in the water by the end of the year.
The vessel is “well out of the mold,” Bohan said. “It was in a mold for about three to four months [and] it is being outfitted right now at our subcontractor.” The company is also vying for contracts for the Navy’s Medium and Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles, which it would build in its new Mississippi facility, Bohan said.
Capt. Pete Small, program manager for unmanned maritime systems in the program executive office for unmanned and small combatants, said last year that Sea Hunter I is being used by the Navy as a learning tool.
“It absolutely did influence the RFP that is on the street now for the medium USV, and we worked very closely with ONR and DARPA and all of the folks who have been operating Sea Hunter and have been involved in the development of that,” he said during a conference hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington, D.C.
Naval Sea Systems Command released a request for proposal for a detail design and fabrication contract for a medium unmanned surface vehicle (MUSV) on July 16, 2019.
“Based on feedback from industry, this RFP was amended twice,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Alan Baribeau told National Defense.
The Pentagon is evaluating responses from industry and expects to award the MUSV contract in fiscal year 2020, he said. The service will take advantage of rapid prototyping efforts and is expecting to deliver the first prototype for the vehicle in early fiscal year 2023.
The president’s 2021 budget request for the Navy also includes funding for a second MUSV prototype in 2023.
“The detail design and fabrication RFP contains options for up to nine USVs, if additional funding is provided in future budget years,” Baribeau said. “The Navy will continue to assess the MUSV acquisition plan and has the option to conduct new or additional competitions, if warranted,” he said in an email.
Ronald O’Rourke, specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service, in a recent summary of the Navy’s unmanned vessel ambitions, said the sea service is requesting $580 million in R&D funding for the unmanned surface and undersea technologies in the 2021 budget request.
The Navy defines medium unmanned ships as being 45 feet to 190 feet long, with displacements of roughly 500 tons. The large vessels are 200 feet to 300 feet in length and have full load displacements of 1,000 tons to 2,000 tons, the report said.
Baribeau said MUSVs will aid the service in producing, deploying and disbursing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare capabilities and provide distributed situational awareness and sensing to the battle force. The platform will be a component of the Future Surface Combatant Force — a framework for a family of ships and systems that includes the future Large Surface Combatant, Small Surface Combatant and Large Unmanned Surface Vessel.
One point of discussion is how the Navy can protect such assets from being boarded or captured.
For the MUSV, the service will utilize early prototypes to gain operational experience with the vehicles before full production, Baribeau said.
“The Navy’s USV test and experimentation plan that is in development with the Surface Warfare Development Squadron will investigate operational and material options to minimize risk of vessel compromise,” he noted.
Seth Cropsey, director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, said boarding and capturing unmanned vehicles is an issue the service will have to overcome.
A few ways to solve the problem are having unmanned vehicles “operating together with manned surface ships … [and] by having a cluster of USVs that can detect and respond to efforts to capture it,” he said in an interview.
Larry Ryder, senior director of business development and customer relations at Austal USA, said anti-tampering — including cyber hardening — is a necessity.
“If you are going to be distributed and have a lot of these things spread all over the place, you have got to be able to ensure that you are not feeding somebody else’s fleet,” Ryder said.
Austal USA believes in the future of unmanned surface ships and has been investing its own research-and-development dollars into the technology, he added. In addition, it is working with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office on autonomy for surface ships.
“We took the approach of how do you design a ship from the keel up to be totally unmanned or autonomous? Because you make several choices on design decisions,” he said.
The company has several designs based on the Navy’s requirements for the medium and large unmanned ship programs.
When designing a fully autonomous ship, many constraints put in place to accommodate crews on manned platforms are thrown out the window, he noted.
“You are much more efficient in the use of space and you’re not spending money on these aspects. You get a much more efficient platform,” he added. That translates to more fuel, bigger payload or increased speed.
Cropsey said: “The question is: ‘What is its best application now and thinking ahead, can we look at how this is going to change?’” he asked. “Because as with any innovation in warfare or outside of it, one development leads to another.”
These types of capabilities give flexibility to fleet commanders and complicate problems for adversaries by increasing the number of vessels brought to a fight, he said.
“I think one of the limitations is that you don’t get the same advantages with an unmanned vehicle in terms of visible presence that you do with a ship that has a crew aboard it,” he said.
One aspect of manned ships that could be difficult to duplicate in unmanned vessels are the “feelings” they create for sailors, Cropsey said. Everything from mechanical problems to smells aboard manned platforms create a different means of learning or understanding how to maintain the vessel, he noted.
“An experienced crew has a feeling for a ship that it may take a while for computers to reproduce — smells, vibrational movement, response to the helm — all these things that are not beyond the computer’s ability, but it requires an advanced kind of understanding to put all these things together and make sense of them,” he said. “I think that time may come, but I don’t think it’s here” yet.
DARPA is taking the concept even further with its No Manning Required Ship, Ryder said.
“They don’t want any human activity on the ship for at least a year,” he said. Designing a vessel that needs oil changes every three months for such a concept would not work.
DARPA wants to “remove the human element from all ship design considerations,” according to its program fact sheet. “The program intends to demonstrate significant advantages, to include size, cost, at-sea reliability, survivability to sea-state, and survivability to adversary actions such as stealth considerations and resistance to tampering.
“The program also will strive for greater hydrodynamic efficiency via hull optimization without requirements for crew safety or comfort,” DARPA said.
As far as designing ships, “it’s a new mentality, but I think that’s where we are headed,” Ryder said.
— Additional reporting by Stew Magnuson