Chris Weeks, a program manager with Bluefin Robotics, untethers the company's Hovering Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (HAUV) during a demonstration at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Thursday. The HAUV scans ship's hulls with high-resolution sonar to detect mines and Improvised Explosive Devices an enemy might try to attach to a docked U.S. Navy ship.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — An aquatic robot swam along the side of a ship in a demonstration of new technology at the U.S. Navy’s Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City on Thursday. It’s all part of the testing of underwater unmanned vehicles, or underwater robots, that will be incorporated into the Navy’s arsenal to fight enemies of America at sea.
Researchers, scientists and military personnel have gathered to watch the latest gadgets and gizmos tested as part of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research Mine Countermeasures Science and Technology at the warfare center over the past two weeks.
Phil Bernstein, head of the Unmanned Systems Technology Branch at the warfare center, discussed why robots are important to the military and why the demonstration took place. “We are trying to get the robots to do the dirty, dull and dangerous work,” Bernstein said. “This is a place where we have the opportunity to bring lots of robotic and unmanned systems together and demonstrate them in a relative environment, out into the ocean and not just in somebody’s backyard. We get sailors and Marines out to see the technology that will be coming out in the next five years.”
The varieties of robots are constantly evolving at the Navy’s research center. “There are different vehicles (robots) for different missions,” Bernstein said. “But they are all predominantly related to (sea) mine hunting.” Many of the robots showcased Thursday could be deployed as equipment on board the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), Bernstein said. The LCS is designed to be active in shallow coastal waters. The LCS is equipped with unmanned robotic vehicles that can scan the sea floor for explosive sea mines. The LSC also will be able to launch helicopters and unmanned flying drones. “We have systems (robots) that cover everything from shallow water into ports and harbors and confined places,” Bernstein said.
The vehicles showcased were part of a five-year program that is just now coming to an end, Navy officials said. Thomas Swean, team leader for Mine Warfare and Science Technology in the Office of Naval Research, said his group has been making “significant leaps” in technology. “We are making strides with artificial intelligence,” Swean said. “We have shown a lot of capability in detecting and identifying buried objects on a beach. We have never been able to do that before.”
Swean said the Navy can now look for mines placed at sea without utilizing divers. These robots are, for the most part, autonomous. “They control themselves, they can collaborate with each other or they can say, ‘I need help,’ ” Swean said. The robots also could be controlled centrally from the LCS.
Proponents of the LCS and its unmanned robotic systems say the innovations being implemented by the Navy are the most advanced in 60 years. “I would say that is true,” Swean agreed. “It’s a new paradigm.” Swean also said machines will not only do the dangerous work but be able to identify problems and relay the information back to the ship. “This is the future of the Navy,” Swean said. “We are moving toward multiple unmanned systems including unmanned (water) surface vehicles, which will deploy the (other) unmanned undersea vehicles, spread them out and go back and pick them all up.”