Navy Looking to Expand Range, Speed of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

Original Article By National Defense Industrial Association Magazine
By Valerie Insinna

The Navy wants unmanned underwater vehicles that are faster, with better target identification and data transmission capabilities, officials told industry Nov. 6.

The caveat: They have to be inexpensive enough for the service to afford in a constrained budget environment.

“If you’ve got a piece of kit out there right now, and you want to see if we like it and we’ll use it, give me what you’ve got now, and then we’ll work together” to modify it, Capt. Eric Wirstrom, director of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command’s maritime operation center, said in a speech at he Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s program review. However, “I need it cheap,” he stressed.

Rob Simmons, assistant program manager for PMS 408, the Navy’s program office for acquiring explosive ordnance disposal technologies, said the service wants to buy vessels that are “good enough,” not expensive developmental technologies.

“We want to field the 80 percent solution with … open architecture hooks” that allow the service to upgrade systems with new software and sensors further down the road, he said. UUVs must be operationally available for use, reliable and transportable.

The Navy’s expeditionary force only recently begun to use UUVs to detect explosives under the water’s surface, Wirstrom said. “When it comes to requirements generation and development, we are figuring that out and we’re getting faster and better.”

The undersea environment ascribes limitations to UUVs that their airborne and terrestrial brethren do not have to deal with. For instance, pilots can remotely control a drone via a satellite link, but since that is impossible underwater, UUVs rely much more on autonomy. That also keeps many underwater vehicles from being able to transfer data in real time to human operators.

Wirstrom laid out a wishlist of capabilities he would like industry to bring him, including smaller, man-portable systems and UUVs that can be launched and recovered from aircraft, surface ships and submarines.

The Navy’s explosive ordnance disposal fleet has a “time problem” and needs technologies that will increase the speed in which crews can detect, identify and neutralize explosives, Wirstrom said. UUVs need to become faster at both getting to a location and then patrolling it.

The Navy wants a faster way to get data from the unmanned vehicle to the human operator who conducts in-depth analysis. Additionally, “We’ve got to get algorithms to the point where we have confidence in their ability to classify mines, point out to the operator the areas that merit further review,” he said.

Sensors are yet another area where there is a lot of room for improvement, he said.

“Not every column of water is the same. The clarity is going to differ,” Wirstrom said. Plug-and-play sensors that can be swapped out for different environments would give commanders more options.

The program office is already at work trying to develop some of these capabilities and integrate them into the existing fleet, Simmons said.

He implored industry to take advantage of the small business innovation research grants and defense acquisition challenge programs that can help companies rapidly put their products into the hands of sailors and Marines.

For example, a company is using SBIR funding to develop a hybrid lithium-ion battery fuel cell power system, while another is developing a module that can help existing UUVs to detect the presence of trace explosives while underwater.

These programs help the Navy understand what technology is already available, which in turn “helps us develop first generation requirements, first generation tactics, techniques and procedures,” Simmons said.

The Office of Naval Research and Naval Surface Warfare Center are also developing innovative technologies, such as a large diameter UUV that will be able to conduct surveillance and logistics missions for upwards of 60 days in the littorals, said Daniel Sternlicht, head of the center’s sensing sciences division.

Defense contractors at the event asked Wirstrom how they could be expected to provide inexpensive products when the Navy does not procure large volumes of unmanned underwater vehicles.

To that, he said, “Whatever we use, our coalition partners are going to be looking at also. … And, if it works for the expeditionary force, what’s the likelihood that it might work for the surface community or the aviation community?”