Navies Move Forward With Unmanned Systems

GM's hydrogen-fuelled autonomous submarine

By Paul Benecki 2016-06-29 21:18:49

The navies of the U.S. and UK are making strides towards a future that is less manned and more automated, with drone devices on the surface, underwater and in the air to provide a wide variety of capabilities – from mine countermeasures to air strikes. 

Early this week, Rear Admiral Paul Bennett of the Royal Navy opened a "foyer day" for the press at Navy Command Headquarters for viewing of a wide variety of robotic craft, like the BAE Systems Jekyll, a 50-knot RIB with cameras and a towed array for submarine detection, capable of navigating a preset path. Commander Peter Pipkin, fleet robotics officer, has described such systems as "critical" to the navy's capability development, especially for missions in high risk environments.

The Royal Navy is planning a mass trial for 50 unmanned systems off the Hebrides in October, and the press preview was intended to give an early look at the participating designs. NATO's research center will also be participating.

Like other American service branches, the U.S. Navy has already deployed multiple combat drone systems, and is actively developing more. The Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado has recently embarked a new generation of the Fire Scout drone helicopter, equipped with an upgraded surveillance radar for maritime domain awareness and surface warfare support. It can track up to 150 sea or land targets simultaneously. The Navy says that it will be on hand during the RIMPAC 2016 exercises, which extend through August. 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been working on several fronts on airborne automated systems, including TERN, a vertical take off and landing combat drone intended to launch from almost any warship and overwhelm opponent's defenses by sheer numbers. The 40-foot-wingspan aircraft has two counter-rotating propellers, which lift it vertically off the deck, then allow it to transition to horizontal flight. The concept closely resembles the layout of the Convair XFY 1 VTOL fighter of the 1950s, which was abandoned due to a limited top speed and a challenging vertical landing procedure.

Systems in development include a new General Motors / U.S. Navy joint project on a hydrogen-powered subsea autonomous vehicle capable of months of continuous, self-sufficient deployment. The system is designed around an automotive-application fuel cell, and it has just completed a successful round of testing at the Naval Research Laboratory's facilities in Maryland. “The collaboration with the Navy leveraged what we learned in amassing more than three million miles of real-world experience with our Project Driveway fuel cell program,” said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM global fuel cell activities. GM expects the research to benefit shoreside transportation technology as well. 

To provide navigation for unmanned subs, BAE Systems is developing a system for reception of positioning signals below the surface - an acoustic beacon version of GPS. “We want to use signals that propagate very well underwater,” said Joshua Niedzwiecki, the director of sensor processing at the firm, speaking to Defense One. “And it turns out that acoustic signals propagate extremely well.” The system would do away with the requirement for inertial navigation systems, which are large and costly. Technical challenges remain – like ensuring that the system does not disrupt marine mammals' acoustic communications. 

Analysts warn that long range, high endurance unmanned tracking drones could eventually degrade the strategic importance of the third component of the nuclear deterrent triad – the ballistic missile submarine.  Already, civilian autonomous underwater vehicles are aiding in subsea search: in April, the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry helped find the lost ship El Faro’s black box, a task which a previous mission had not been able to complete. 

To maintain their strategic advantage, ballistic missile subs like the Trident or the Typhoon depend on their ability to keep their location secret; in decades to come, a constant tail or a team of unmanned autonomous vehicles working together could augment and extend the reach of traditional anti-submarine warfare assets, potentially making it harder to hide.

Researchers with Georgia Tech are working on just such a “team” system – a swarm of tiny, autonomous, actively collaborating subsea drones intended to form a surveillance network. "Underwater vehicle autonomy today consists mostly of throwing a vehicle off the back of a boat, having it swim around, gather information and then return," says senior research engineer Michael West. "Our program is aimed at using many vehicles that operate both autonomously and collaboratively – where, for example, one vehicle could say to another, 'I need your type of sensor, you need to come over here.'" One day, systems like West’s could potentially shift the balance in favor of anti-submarine warfare.