As the U.S. Navy refines and deploys several types of unmanned undersea and surface vessels, the service is still in the hunt for more rugged sensors, better propulsion systems and open-architecture host vehicles capable of deploying smaller unmanned systems.
The service also is interested in greater endurance and more reliable ways to refuel or recover unmanned equipment, Navy brass told attendees Feb. 3 at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems Program Review 2011 in Washington.
But most important of all, the vehicles, sensors and systems must be affordable, according to Rear Adm. David Titley, Navy oceanographer and navigator. “I just can’t emphasize how important that is for these initiatives,” he says.
Gone are the days, the Navy officers say, when the Pentagon would simply fund science and technology projects for years and then move those efforts into actual programs. Now, parallel development is becoming more of the norm, with an emphasis on equipment that works now.
The Navy can cite some success stories. For example, Titley highlights an unmanned undersea glider that has already performing missions lasting four to six months in places like the Arctic or Indian oceans. Among other tasks, the gliders identify and assess water columns, providing key environmental data for anti-submarine warfare, Titley says.
“This is more than just some PowerPoint,” he says. “This is not just initial capability. We have real vehicles out in real oceans doing the Navy’s work today.”
In the immediate future, the Navy plans to deploy an unmanned surface minesweeping capability under a program called Unmanned Influence Sweep that is part of a module package for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), according to Capt. Duane Ashton, program manager for Navy unmanned maritime systems.
What the Navy needs from industry to make the unmanned LCS minesweeping module work, Ashton says, are ruggedized sensors that can handle rough sea states, as well as improved command-and-control equipment — especially systems that will make it possible to deploy the package long range and over the horizon.
In the longer term, Ashton says, Navy officials have bandied about the concept of a host unmanned surface ship that will be able to work in the littorals and deploy its own unmanned undersea vehicles. Ashton and other officers say the Navy is very interested in expanding its unmanned footprint, especially under the waves. “The undersea domain is an area we haven’t tapped as much as we need to,” says Rear Adm. Mathew Klunder, director of the Navy’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance division.