Unmanned minesweeping system keeps personnel out of harm's way
Warship Technology: July/Aug 2018
Designed and manufactured by Atlas Elektronik UK in Dorset under a £13 million (US$17.3 million) contract with the Ministry of Defence, (MoD) and following a period of successful trials, the demonstrator of a new, unmanned minesweeping system has been delivered to the UK Royal Navy. The system will now undergo a series of more detailed trials with the Royal Navy.
Speaking at the time that the new system was delivered, UK Defence Minister Guto Bebb said: “This autonomous minesweeper takes us a step closer to taking our crews out of danger and allowing us to safely clear sea lanes of explosives, whether that’s supporting trade in global waters and around the British coastline or protecting our ships and shores.
“Easily transported by road, sea and air, the design means a small team could put the system to use within hours of it arriving in theatre. We are investing millions in innovative technology now, to support our military of the future.”
The system’s innovative technology has the ability to defeat today’s digital sea mines which can detect and target military ships passing overhead. The sweeper system, which features a ‘sense and avoid’ capability, could also work together with other similar autonomous systems.
The project also aims to demonstrate the viability of an unmanned system that can safely and successfully clear mines and which is designed to be operated from a land or ship-based control station and can be deployed from a suitable ship or port.
Over the last four months, the system has been put through its paces by Atlas Elektronik and Defence Equipment and Support team members and the Royal Navy’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials Team (MASTT).
The system was tested against a number of performance requirements, for example, how well it cleared mines, whether the autonomous system could successfully avoid obstacles and the overall system performance.
Brigadier Jim Morris Royal Marines, Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff in Maritime Capability, and Senior Responsible Officer for the Mine Counter Measures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme said: “The Mine Countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability Combined Influence Minesweeping system is the Royal Navy’s first fully autonomous capability demonstrator and paves the way for the introduction of this technology across the full range of maritime capabilities.
“Combined influence minesweeping is a critical component of the mine countermeasures capability. This autonomous system will restore the Royal Navy’s sweep capability, enabling it to tackle modern digital mines that may not otherwise be discovered in challenging mine-hunting conditions.
“This autonomous sweep system represents a fundamental step in the Royal Navy’s transition to autonomous offboard systems to counter the threat posed to international shipping by the sea mine; we look forward to commencing demonstration of the associated minehunting system in 2019.”
The handover of the system to the Royal Navy is a significant milestone for the MHC programme, which aims to de-risk maritime autonomous systems and introduce these new technologies into the Royal Navy.
Director Ships Support Neal Lawson, of the MoD’s procurement organisation, Defence Equipment and Support, said, “The autonomous minesweeper offers a commander the ability to defeat mines that cannot be countered by current hunting techniques and significantly reduces the risk to crew members in pressured and time-constrained operations. The system can offer greater flexibility and upgradability, allowing the Royal Navy to respond better to the sea mine threat in the long-term and operate more effectively around the world.”
Dr Antoni Mazur, Managing Director, Atlas Elektronik said the autonomous minesweeping system has several innovative features. These include compliance with collision regulations (COLREGs); and a novel, high-output power generation module (PGM). This is coupled with a multi-influence sweep system including an innovative ‘towed coils’ system with an advanced acoustic source and sweep monitoring system.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a common unmanned surface vehicle (CUSV) continues to be tested on behalf of the US Navy.
Developed by Textron Systems, the CUSV could one day form the basis of a modular autonomous weapon system for the US Navy (there is no programme or acquisition in place to acquire CUSVs as yet).
“Our first project is what we are calling a surface and expeditionary warfare mission module, which will consist of engagement technology paired with a battle management system (BMS) controlling a Longbow Hellfire missile,” Chris Nerney, a technical programme manager at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCCD) explained. “The idea is a mission package that could slide into the CUSV modular mission bay and provide a direct and indirect fire capability.”
The US Navy and Textron Systems plan to prove the developmental concept that combines direct and indirect fire capability with a gunfire demonstration later this year, followed by a live missile shoot in 2019.
“We are creating a modular surface and expeditionary warfare payload with a gun and a missile weapon system to be evaluated for integration onto the common unmanned surface vehicle,” said Kevin Green, NSWCCD technical lead for ship-to-shore precision engagement integration and prototype. “This payload could enable warfighters to counter fast attack craft and fast inshore attack craft and it could provide ship-to-shore fire support for expeditionary and special operations forces. It also gives us a baseline development effort to operate and perform further research and development.”
Textron and NSWCCD staff are working on ideas for payloads that could be integrated into the CUSV. They range from maritime interdiction and special operations to surface warfare.
“We’re demonstrating the realm of the possible, proof of concept, and leveraging a Textron developmental craft and proven weapon systems with the Hellfire, BMS, and other capabilities,” said Wayne Prender, Textron Systems’ vice president of control and surface systems. “We’re bringing those technologies together and implementing them in an autonomous way that’s unique and new.”
For surface and expeditionary warfare missions warfighters could use a modular, plug and play unit designed to fit the CUSV mission bay. This mission module includes sensors for targeting, a weapon station with a gun, and a launcher system for missiles. It could provide the capability to carry out missions outlined in the US Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vehicle Master Plan.
NSWCCD engineers are creating the payload in response to guidance outlined in the US Navy’s recent USV Strategic Roadmap and the Marine Corps Operating Concept. They anticipate that weaponising a USV with direct and indirect fire capability could expand its mission portfolio to include surface warfare, maritime security, and maritime interdiction operations in addition to special operations forces and expeditionary forces support.
“We are developing automated weapon systems that provide tactically effective automation of the entire kill chain, and we’re doing so with minimal dependence on what is usually an unreliable datalink,” said Green. “Our experience integrating unmanned systems has taught us that the weapon systems must be just as automated as the platforms themselves in order to reduce the number of operators and operate reliably beyond line of sight.”
The US Navy and US Marine Corps could use the BMS to fire missiles and precision guided munitions from the CUSV. They would use the autonomous system for detection, tracking, and direct fire engagement.
“The CUSV could be fitted with a variety of payloads. It could be deployed from nearly any large vessel and could be deployed in significant numbers from a US Navy ship or a Joint High-Speed Vessel-type platform to perform a range of missions,” said Nerney. So far, much of their attention has focused on the Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle because it is the US Navy’s only programme of record for an unmanned surface vehicle.
“If the US Navy or Marine Corps decide to build larger unmanned surface vehicles, we could scale the guns and missiles up,” said Nerney. “If the decision is to go with ‘swarms’ of small USVs, then we could scale the system down accordingly.”
The US Navy’s collaboration with Textron Systems began in 2011 when the developmental CUSV was developed and used in a number of demonstrations. In December 2017, the company signed a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with NSWCCD. The agreement covers the integration of missile, designator, and remote weapon station payloads to Textron Systems’ developmental CUSV, which has a 3,500lb payload on deck and a payload bay measuring 20.5ft x 6.ft.
The company previously contracted with the US Navy to develop the Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS) – minesweeping units towed by the CUSV – which will undertake a mine countermeasure mission in support of a littoral combat ship.
Under the CRADA, the NSWCCD will develop a government-owned open architecture weapon control system to include both hardware and software. Implementations of this design will enable rapid development to support and control a variety of precision guided weapons. This open architecture concept will allow vendors to provide munitions and subsystems for future capabilities as long as the munitions and subsystems support the government owned interfaces.
“Other ideas in the works for mission packages include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” Nerney concluded. “We can develop mission packages to support carrying and launching of armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This will give us a hunter-killer, over-the-horizon capability by pairing the armed common unmanned surface vehicle with an armed Firescout UAV, laser weapon, or vessel-stopping equipment.”