Royal Navy personnel deploy a REMUS 100 AUV. (Photo: Royal Navy)
Interview with Christopher von Alt, President and CEO of Hydroid, Inc.
06:39 GMT, March 13, 2012 defpro.com | When a ship crew slips a small yellow and black painted vessel into the water, it is usually a so-called autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), preparing to go on its mission into the remote and harsh environment of the deep sea. There it silently conducts its pre-programmed tasks and, after hours, surfaces with a large amount of gathered data. While robotics continuously advance into almost all fields of defence and security operations, AUVs have been among the first systems to operate at the highest degree of autonomy, requiring a significant amount of faith by their operators. However, the systems have proven their worth in demanding scenarios, such as mine-countermeasures (MCM) and debris field mapping in the search for aircraft that crashed into the sea.
Nicolas von Kospoth of defpro.com talked to Christopher von Alt*, President and CEO of Hydroid, Inc., about the company’s commitment to providing the necessary reliability and availability to build and sustain this vital trust among the users of Hydroid AUVs. Read the interview published below to learn more about Hydroid’s wide range of activities, its role as a subsidiary of Kongsberg Maritime, as well as trends in the AUV market.
defpro.com: Mr von Alt, could you please give our readers a brief overview of Hydroid, as well as its range of products and services?
Chris von Alt: Hydroid has revolutionised marine and ocean exploration by developing a line of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) called REMUS. They are used to replace the traditional ways of conducting mine-countermeasures (MCM) and hydrographic survey operations by manned surface vessels. We are a leader in the industry and have seen steady growth since 2001 when Hydroid came into being in the commercial market place.
There are currently three primary product lines. First, there is the REMUS 100, which is a man-portable system providing great logistic advantages to its users. Next there is the REMUS 600, a 500-pound vehicle that has been designed to operate to depths of up to 600 meters. It provides greater endurance and capability to support more advanced sensors that require larger apertures. Finally, with the REMUS 6000, we offer an AUV that operates in the deep ocean to 6,000 meters.
defpro.com: What is the approximate share of defence activities in Hydroid’s overall portfolio?
Chris von Alt: Approximately 60 to 70 per cent of our business is related to defence. However, this can vary from year to year, depending on the order situation. It also quite well reflects the share in the AUV industry as a whole. Although the commercial segment is there, it is not as strong, due to the limited numbers required by civilian operators and the high costs involved.
defpro.com: In January, Hydroid celebrated its 10th anniversary. How did the AUV market evolve since the company’s early years, and what role has this development played in the merger with Norway-based Kongsberg Maritime?
Chris von Alt: In 2001, there wasn’t much of a commercial marketplace, if you want to define that as one group buying what another one sells. At that time, for the most part, academic groups were developing vehicles and were selling very limited numbers. Prior to that, in the period from 1989 to 2001, I was leading the Oceanographic Systems Lab within the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) where we developed the family of REMUS vehicles and delivered 17 systems, predominantly to academic institutes.
Since 2001, we have witnessed a six-fold increase in the number of systems sold per year. Hydroid has delivered more than 230 AUVs to domestic and international customers since it was founded in 2001, with an annual average of approximately 23 vehicles.
Although the general opinion is that there are many opportunities in robotics, the acquisition of Hydroid by Kongsberg Maritime in 2008 is not directly related to the marketplace of that period. Both Hydroid and Kongsberg Maritime have very customer-centred approaches and share the same values. Hydroid’s record of producing reliable systems with a high availability supports Kongsberg’s commitment to remain a leader in this industry and to provide customers with capabilities they cannot get anywhere else. We felt that the two teams would be stronger together.
defpro.com: To what extent does this constellation provide synergies to increase your range of solutions and enhance your market approach?
Chris von Alt: As a United States contractor, we operate independently of the Kongsberg Group, under a Special Security Agreement with the Defense Security Services. At the same time, and while acting within the laws of international arms transfers, we work very closely with Kongsberg Maritime. Our commitment is to provide the best AUV systems to all civilian and defence market places. We are well situated and the leading AUV manufacturer in the world market, which made us attractive to Kongsberg Maritime.
REMUS was invented from one perspective, while Kongsberg’s HUGIN AUV was invented from another perspective, both by very talented groups of people. Together we take the best aspects of those two systems and harmonise them to enhance both, offering our customers the best AUVs in the world. Based on our combined resources, we will offer even better products in the future.
defpro.com: The AUV market is rapidly growing, and industrial capabilities, as well as know-how among competitors, are increasing globally. How is Hydroid positioning itself and its products to meet the challenges of this market?
Chris von Alt: Currently, the Hydroid team consists of 90 people who continuously strive to offer the highest level of product quality, support, and innovation. The only way to ensure this is to hire the best people that you can find. I can’t say enough about the contributions of our employees. They are smart, capable, and efficient, and are highly tuned to the needs of our customers. With the commitment of our team, we ensure the high reliability of our products, as well as the quality of our service.
defpro.com: Which capabilities do the AUVs of the REMUS family provide to their operators, and which different sensor payloads are being used for these purposes?
Chris von Alt: The REMUS AUVs are typically used by operators from the defence and the gas and oil sectors for mine-countermeasures (MCM), hydrographic surveys, as well as search and survey operations at depths from three metres to 6,000 metres.
The vehicles are typically configured with an advanced GPS-aided inertial navigation system and a Doppler velocity log that can also be supported by long baseline navigation. Among the significant technical advancements that are coming at us in the field of navigation are terrain-relative and single transponder navigation.
The REMUS vehicles are usually equipped with side scan sonar as well as a forward-looking sonar that helps to smooth the vehicle’s flight over rough terrain. The larger vehicles can also be fitted with a multi-depth sonar. Conductivity and temperature sensors, as well as a range of different environmental sensors, further complement the sensor technology that can be installed on REMUS AUVs.
Finally, the vehicles offer a host of capabilities that are embedded in their software, including the very important autonomy capabilities.
defpro.com: Is Hydroid working together with specialised industrial partners and sub-suppliers to develop the sensor technology, or are these exclusively in-house efforts? What role did academic and other collaborative research efforts play in the development of these systems?
Chris von Alt: Hydroid teams with a number of industrial and academic partners. We recognise that the real strength comes from the benefits of working with other people in the industry and in the research and academic fields. This enables us to come up with solutions that meet our customers’ needs at the best price and as quickly as possible. To accomplish that, we utilize an open system architecture, permitting users to further enhance the capabilities of the systems themselves.
Furthermore, we maintain a very strong link to academic institutions, and many of our customers come from that field. REMUS was originally developed at WHOI with a lot of support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and HUGIN was developed in cooperation with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) and Statoil. We truly appreciate working with these people; they have played a strong role in the development of the systems and will continue to do so. Working with observationally-based institutions such as WHOI and FFI, where brilliant, innovative people have experience deploying first-generation systems at sea, enables us to stay in the forefront.
defpro.com: The multi-national military operation in Libya has clearly revealed the requirement of modern navies to operate in unknown littoral waters and even to counter attempts to mine ports and sea lanes, such as observed in Misrata. How do you assess the importance and the need for AUVs in today’s military operations, and in what way do the solutions offered by Hydroid meet these requirements?
Chris von Alt: When you are working in the defence industry, it just comes down to the reliability and availability of the systems you produce; if you have a system that works, then they will use it. AUVs are very important for navies because they gather information while keeping troops out of harm’s way, in particular in mine-countermeasure operations.
We have proven with many of our naval customers throughout the world that the systems we produce are reliable. There is growing momentum in the understanding that Hydroid’s AUV solutions will perform successfully in the field and that operators can count on them to obtain the required information and bring it back in a timely manner to support decision-making. That is what makes our systems so important. Therefore, our focus remains on offering this level of reliability and availability.
defpro.com: In 2011, Hydroid announced that it passed Critical Design Review (CDR) to provide Littoral Battlespace Sensing (LBS) AUVs and associated technologies to the US Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR). What is the current status, and what is the future schedule for this prestigious programme?
Chris von Alt: We recently completed the test readiness review and are now in the midst of developmental testing and evaluation (DT&E), after having delivered the first prototype system. Milestone C for the programme is planned for April/May 2012. We are on schedule and on budget and are demonstrating that the systems meet or exceed all key performance parameters.
What makes this programme a little bit different from others is that it is a US Navy programme of record, rather than a User Operational Evaluation System (UOES) programme. UOES programmes offer a much closer working relationship in development with the Fleet, allowing us to gain more experience about how they would use the system and shape specifications. It has been a very powerful way of developing and integrating this new technology, and we have been lucky to have been part of many programmes of that nature. Both types of programmes have their advantages.
defpro.com: Hydroid recently delivered a REMUS 6000 for WHOI, which will use it in close cooperation with the U.S. Navy. Could you please describe the deep ocean capabilities of the REMUS 6000?
Chris von Alt: Eight REMUS 6000 systems have been delivered so far, including one to the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, where it is used extensively for deep ocean research.
Another quite prominent example of the use of these systems was the Air France Flight 447 recovery operation in the Atlantic Ocean. The search for the wreckage of the aircraft was conducted by WHOI, using three REMUS 6000 AUVs operating simultaneously off of one ship at depths of more than 3,500 metres. The systems helped to locate the wreckage in quite mountainous undersea terrain and documented the debris field, so that a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) could carry out the recovery work.
The combined use of these three vehicles made a dramatic difference, enabling a very small team to benefit from a manifold level of effectiveness that a traditional single surface vessel could not have offered.
The example of the search for the wreckage of Flight 447 has shown that future AUV operations will involve multiple vehicles, working together autonomously, with limited groups of people, greatly increasing their ability to gather information in the ocean. You can transition that example, and the larger statement that is reflected by the systems’ performance, into MCM operations of the future.
defpro.com: Taking a look at the bigger picture in the market: Are the sale numbers of AUVs being affected by ongoing defence budget issues, or would you rather say that AUVs brave the general trends?
Chris von Alt: There are many ways of looking at the current development in budget discussions. Certainly, there are budget constraints throughout the world, and we are watching closely to see how this plays out.
There is a growing faith in the reliability and capabilities of AUVs, and navies are increasingly investing in these systems. They offer a more cost-effective way to conduct mine-countermeasure operations and harbour-defence support functions than the traditional approaches, such as re-outfitting an MCM vessel with a new sonar system. Despite a certain downturn in budgetary numbers, opportunities are increasing for the use of these systems. The austerity budgets may, indeed, push some countries to consider moving more in this cost-effective direction.
Nevertheless, it remains a matter of faith for operators to put an expensive piece of equipment into the water and let it go, expecting it to come back with the required information. It takes a long time to earn this level of trust. In contrast to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are in constant communication with the operator on the ground, an AUV carries out its mission in a fully autonomous way. After it has been programmed, you may, perhaps, follow its trajectory, but you do not normally actively control it while it is doing its work. On the other hand, the advantage of this mode of operation is that you can send the vehicles on their missions while being free to do something else, without the necessity of constant supervision.
Making the leap, in the sense of having an asset of this importance doing a mission by itself and trusting that it can be done successfully, is still a realisation that is emerging among many potential users. The people who use the AUVs see the advantages, but they also have to go back into the budget conferences and convince the decision-makers to allocate money to those areas.
defpro.com: Due to the quite specialised capabilities of AUVs, do you perceive a possible trend of outsourcing such capabilities to specialised institutions or companies?
Chris von Alt: REMUS was originally designed to be operated by somebody with a high school education and only five days of training. It does not necessarily take a great deal of specialised skills to use these systems. However, being creative with them and running them in bizarre and tough environments, while exploiting their full capabilities, will require more know-how and experience. To date, we haven’t seen a trend of outsourcing AUV capabilities. The naval users want to have these capabilities among their assets.
defpro.com: How does Hydroid specifically support its military customers with integrating the systems into their units and adequately training the operators?
Chris von Alt: Typically, what has been very effective in the past is to integrate future users into the factory acceptance testing.
When these systems were first introduced to navies, we tried to build up the knowledge and understanding of how the system works and to create confidence in its capabilities among future users. We would work with a customer team during the acceptance period and teach them early-on how to work with the system. This would also include time in a classroom, acquiring the basic understanding of programming a vehicle, as well as practical operations at sea.
Mission planning and mission analysis are the most important aspects of training, including learning to understand and interpret the sonar. We offer courses that can be provided specifically to the user in accordance with their individual specifications, generic courses that are attended by a maximum of five people, as well as open enrolment classes using a virtual environment for the entire range of products, configured with different sensors. This allows the student to programme the vehicle, watch how the mission is being executed and then download and analyse the data in a simulated environment.
defpro.com: As our last question, we would like to ask what your personal visions and aims are for the future of Hydroid.
Chris von Alt: AUVs operate in the harshest environments on earth, they are unmanned, and they are expensive. It’s akin to sending a pre-programmed, unmanned probe into outer space, except that there is not the same budget for AUVs. Therefore, in our industry, reliability is the key factor. Our vision is to make the systems that we produce more and more reliable. That is what we have demonstrated in the past, and we are seeing a greater and wider acceptance for these systems as a result of these efforts.
defpro.com: Thank you very much, Mr von Alt.
* Christopher J. von Alt received his B. E. in Electrical Science from the University of NY at Stony Brook in 1978 and an M.S. in Ocean Engineering from the MIT in 1984. He has worked in the underwater marine construction industry as well as holding research appointments at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). He has sat on or chaired numerous technical symposia and was the 1997 recipient of the WHOI Technical Staff Award. He has led many at-sea operations and pioneered the use of AUVs in the fields of mine countermeasures and Deep Sea Survey operations. Mr von Alt has also written numerous publications. In September 2011, Mr von Alt received the Distinguished Technical Achievement Award of the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society for his leadership in the development and use of AUVs. Mr von Alt is currently President and CEO of Hydroid, Inc.
|Author:||Nicolas von Kospoth|