IDEX NEWS: Uncrewed Vessel Making Waves with U.S. Navy Task Force in Middle East

By Mikayla Easley
Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel

Defense Dept. photo

ABU DHABI — The U.S.-based firm Saildrone is showcasing one of its uncrewed surface vessels in the Middle East this week, just after the company participated in the first bilateral unmanned exercise between the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

The Saildrone Explorer is one of the USVs being used by the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 59 in a series of experiments with uncrewed vessels and artificial intelligence in the Arabian Gulf. The 23-foot-long drone is entirely powered by wind and solar energy and can last at sea for more than a year, ideal for collecting data of the ocean, said Adam Watters, program manager for maritime domain awareness solutions at Saildrone.

Along with the Explorer, Saildrone makes two larger USVs — the Voyager and the Surveyor — that are powered by diesel-electric motors and suited for other maritime missions, Watters said on the sidelines of NAVDEX, the naval counterpart to the International Defence Exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s a pretty flexible platform in terms of payload integration, above the waterline and below. It’s really kind of a truck at sea,” he said.

The week before the conference, two of Saildrone’s Explorer USVs sailed in the first unmanned vessel exercise in the Arabian Gulf between the United States Navy and United Arab Emirates navy, according to a U.S. Navy press release. Two other drones from Task Force 59 participated in the exercise: an L3 Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13 and an Ocean Aero Triton.

During the exercise, cameras and sensors from various USVs took images and videos of other vessels in the water, which were sent to operational centers onshore where artificial intelligence was able to analyze the data, the press release said.

Watters said that interested customers are largely looking to USVs to “fill gaps” in their maritime operations.

“A lot of the uncrewed systems that are available right now are not necessarily going to replace crewed systems, but what they do is they free up those crewed systems to now focus on other mission sets,” he said, adding that Saildrone is working with Task Force 59 to help them best integrate USVs into their current manned operations.

Since 2021, Task Force 59 has been working with a number of nations in the Gulf region to establish a multi-national fleet of USVs. The vision is to integrate 100 unmanned advanced surface vessels into daily maritime operations — a goal that Task Force 59 is nearly halfway done with, said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and commander of the 5th Fleet.

“Momentum continues to build as we quickly discover the enormous value unmanned AI systems have in expanding our collective capabilities,” Cooper said during a presentation at the conference. “We believe integration efforts will enhance regional information sharing and, ultimately, maritime threat evasion.”

Topics: International

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