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Unmanned vessels advancing on both sides of the Atlantic

Warship Technology: January 2016

Unmanned technology that has the potential to “change the face of naval operations within a decade” has been demonstrated by BAE Systems in partnership with ASV at a site near Portsmouth naval base. The new concept will, it is claimed, allow naval forces to carry out vital tasks such as high-speed reconnaissance and remote surveillance while keeping sailors out of harm’s way.

In the tests in late 2015, a modified rigid inflatable boat (RIB) capable of operating autonomously for up to 12 hours at a time, on a pre-planned route or via remote control, was demonstrated. The unit in question can reach speeds in excess of 38knots, providing a ship-launched asset for enhanced situational awareness to support the decision-making of its operators. The technology is designed to be fitted to the RIBs like those already used extensively by the Royal Navy. Underpinning the system’s ability to operate autonomously is its complex array of sensors, including a navigation radar, 360deg panoramic infrared camera array and laser range finder which offer operators a detailed picture within a significant range of the vessel.

Enhanced capability
“This technology delivers an extremely robust and fast-moving unmanned boat that is able to perform a number of surveillance and reconnaissance roles, even when operating at high speed or in choppy water,” said Les Gregory, Product and Training Services Director at BAE Systems. “The demonstration highlights the enhanced capability this technology offers. While other programmes are primarily designed for larger, slower boats to tackle mine countermeasure scenarios, this system provides an extremely manoeuvrable multi-role unit.”

The unmanned system and software algorithms controlling the boat were provided by Portchester-based unmanned and autonomous specialist, ASV. BAE Systems has been working closely with ASV to integrate the technology and prove the concept through the demonstrator. The next stage in its development is to create the sensor suite before ensuring a seamless integration with the combat management system on the parent ship.

Dan Hook, managing director of ASV said: “The algorithms we are developing with BAE Systems allow the boat to perform complex missions and navigate through waters avoiding collisions. This gives it the flexibility and sophistication to operate in a number of different tactical roles, whether it is patrolling areas of interest, providing surveillance and reconnaissance ahead of manned  missions, or protecting larger ships in a fleet.”

The unmanned boats will be able to operate up to 40km away from a parent ship. As well as being completely autonomous they can also be remote-controlled by crew on land, from the ship via a hand-held controller or piloted as usual. The technology is designed as a retrofit to the manned Pacific 24 RIB already deployed by Royal Navy Type 23 frigates and Type 45 destroyers. The same RIBs will also go on to the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers once they enter service.

Unmanned Warrior
At about the same time that the demonstration took place, representatives from more than 40 research and defence companies met to discuss how unmanned systems can be used on the battlefield of tomorrow. The Royal Navy plans to stage its first ‘robot wars’ next autumn to give companies the chance to demonstrate technology in a realistic workout during Exercise Joint Warrior 16/2 off Scotland. Unmanned Warrior will provide an international showcase for industry as firms demonstrate what their autonomous systems can do for naval warfare.

Delegates who attended a three-day planning conference at QinetiQ in Gosport included representatives from NATO’s Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation, who will be sending their research vessel Alliance to the exercise. The unmanned systems to be demonstrated include those which can be used in surveys, anti-submarine warfare, ISTAR and minehunting.

Fleet robotics officer Commander Peter Pipkin said: “Next year is going to see the first-of-its-kind demonstration in Unmanned Warrior, a unique and innovative challenge to deliver the Royal Navy’s vision for autonomous systems.” Unmanned Warrior is the brainchild of First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, whose forward-thinking was praised in a closing speech at the conference by Fleet Commander Vice-Admiral Sir Philip Jones. “In our view the unique selling point of Unmanned Warrior is its ability to provide a playground, if you like, in which we can simultaneously demonstrate unmanned systems and do so across a range of warfare disciplines. We see a clear opportunity to shape the future of not just the Royal Navy but a raft of our partners.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, personnel from six nations came together recently to work on autonomous underwater vehicles and new concepts for mine countermeasures. The meeting took place at the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Pax River technology demonstrations at Naval Air Station Patuxent (Pax) River in Maryland.

“This is the cutting edge,” said Dr Walter Jones, executive director at ONR. “These are technologies that will impact the future of naval operations and protect our sailors and marines.” Although autonomous underwater vehicles are only in the development stage, the US Navy believes they could play a vital role in future and say the technology demonstrations not only ‘advanced the art of the possible’ but showed the importance of collaboration when it comes to science and technology.

Faster, safer operations
“The MCM programme is making great leaps in developing and fielding autonomous, unmanned systems,” said Dr Jason Stack, programme officer and lead for ONR’s Mine Warfare programme. “MCM and explosive ordnance disposal represent some of the dull, dirty and truly dangerous jobs performed every day by our sailors and marines. These emerging technologies will assist these men and women by making their jobs faster and safer.”

A total of 40 unmanned, autonomous or remotely operated systems were demonstrated and tested over the two-week period. These included unmanned underwater vehicles from Canada, the UK and the US working together with an unmanned surface vehicle from the UK to search the ocean and seabed for mines. Robotic arms built using 3D printing were demonstrated for inspecting and neutralising underwater explosives attached to ships’ hull; and advanced sensors capable of finding mines buried under sediment were demonstrated from a variety of platforms, including one capable of movement in any direction using biologically inspired controls and fins. In addition to the host command of NAS PAX and ONR, partner commands included Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division and Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City. Uniformed and civilian personnel from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Germany were also present.

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