U.S. Navy Begins Testing its First Full-Size Autonomous Ship

The first-in-class USNS Spearhead (EPF 1) (USN file image)

Published Aug 1, 2022 9:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has added autonomous navigation capability to another vessel, the future Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13) for Military Sealift Command. The service has tested out autonomy retrofit systems and purpose-built autonomous prototypes, but this will be the first true numbered hull in the U.S. Navy with built-in vessel autonomy. 

“EPF 13 will be the first fully operational U.S. naval ship to possess autonomous capability, including the ability to operate autonomously in a commercial vessel traffic lane,” said Tim Roberts, Strategic and Theater Sealift program manager, Program Executive Office (PEO) Ships. “This testing is a game changer and highlights that there is potential to expand unmanned concepts into existing fleet assets.”

The EPFs provide the Navy with a militarized ro/pax ferry for medium-range operations, like inter-island transport, special operations, expeditionary medical care or humanitarian relief. A helicopter flight deck, seating for 300 troops, and a 100-ton loading ramp round out the feature set. The class has a top speed of more than 40 knots in calm waters.

Apalachicola was modified for autonomous operation under a supplemental $44 million contract awarded last year to her builder, Austal USA. The upgrades include more automation for the vessel's mechanical systems to reduce personnel requirements, as well as mechanical reliability improvements. Both are key for uncrewed operations. 

The Apalachicola is undergoing a series of autonomy trials, and the tests will increase in difficulty, according to PEO Ships. Next up will be nighttime navigation and operations in various weather and sea state conditions; if these go well, the testing will move up to include collision avoidance and COLREGS compliance.

Adding an autonomous capability to the Spearhead class could open up new options for the Navy. According to Austal, the potential mission sets could include purpose-built adaptations of the EPF platform for uncrewed logistics, mine warfare, or auxiliary magazine (uncrewed missile carrier and launch platform) service. As optionally-crewed vessels, they would be operated by MSC civil service mariners in the ordinary course of business, but could disembark their crews and operate autonomously for hazardous missions.