Insight by Noblis

Science, technology and doctrine come together in Navy’s program for unmanned surface vessels

Neither drones nor autonomous ships, unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, will form an important part of the Navy’s strategy of expanding its fleet in a way tha...

Among the more daunting scientific and engineering challenges in the government is the development of Navy vessels that operate without a crew on board. Neither drones nor autonomous ships, unmanned surface vessels (USVs), will form an important part of the Navy’s strategy of expanding its fleet in a way that’s lower cost, relative to manned ships, and more agile.

Capt. Pete Small, program manager for unmanned maritime systems, noted development of these systems is a tri-component effort of Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Other at-sea industries are developing unscrewed vessels, but these efforts won’t provide what military applications require, Small said.

He described three basic platforms in varying stages of development testing: small, medium and large. At roughly 40 meters in length, Small said the most diminutive USVs, called Sea Hunter, are destined for operations including mine-detection and sweeping or submarine detection. Small said the Navy envisions 200-meter, medium USVs, known as Seahawk, as distributed sensor platforms operating out ahead of manned ships or groups to extend their view.

Small said the Navy plans its large USVs, for which it has a rough architecture, as direct extensions of the Navy’s lethal surface combatant force. Such a vessel would operate as what he called an adjunct magazine, giving for greater and more affordable distributed forces.

Small emphasized that in call cases, USVs will be remotely commanded and controlled, by crews aboard afloat assets, other ships. That is, USV won’t be autonomous or able to make weapons firing decisions on their own.

He said the development challenges for USVs fall into five technology areas:

  • Hull, mechanical and electrical systems including propulsion – they all need to operate more reliably than those of manned systems.
  • Communications circuits for remote command and control – this includes the networks and radios on board to connect to human over watch staff, who would guide the USVs and reprogram them as contingencies arise.
  • Payloads that are meaningful for wartime missions
  • Software, in particular the human-machine interface that appears before the operators’ eyes aboard the destroyer they’re working from
  • Self-awareness of the vessel itself from its sensors, small called these the crown jewels – this characteristic will determine how smart is the vessel is to take in sensory information from radars or sonars, then fusing the inputs and acting on them.


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