With easy access to the Gulf of Mexico and a wealth of technical expertise, the Naval Support Activity Panama City (NSA PC) on St. Andrew Bay is the US Navy’s home of advanced Unmanned Maritime Vehicles, experimental technology for Navy diving, advanced mine-hunting systems, and expeditionary Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), or as they are more commonly known, hovercrafts. All of these technologies support the US Navy’s littoral (near-shore) warfare operations, and as threats to our national interests shift, these technologies are becoming more important to our war-fighting capabilities.
This is especially true of unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) autonomy being developed by the Unmanned Systems Technology and Automation, Dynamics, & Special Programs branches of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD).
Today, the NSWC PCD is a significant developer of autonomy for mine countermeasures (MCM) and littoral warfare for the US Navy, using unmanned vehicles as a force multiplier to defeat littoral threats and reducing the risk to the warfighter. Researchers focus on both conceptual problems and responding to needs identified by partners such as the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) program office, Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Naval Oceanography Mine Warfare Center (NOMWC).
The application of unmanned systems to the underwater regime is particularly challenging due to the many restrictions that the environment places on sensing and communication. Turbidity and low light levels greatly diminish the utility of cameras, laser line scanners, and other common visual sensors used for land and air-based applications. Additionally, operator-to-vehicle RF communications can only be practically used when vehicles are on the surface and acoustic communications typically has a limited usable range of a few kilometers. These restrictions eliminate the possibility of effective remote control operation, and demand more decisions to be made by the vehicle with minimal information from the operator (i.e. more autonomy).
NSWC PCD autonomy researchers have recently been focused on payload autonomy, which utilizes an independent on-board computer that acts as a “backseat driver,” thereby enabling researchers to develop, integrate, and test behaviors using proprietary UUVs through documented interfaces. Researchers started by leveraging an existing autonomy architecture, namely the Mission-Oriented Operating Suite (MOOS), to develop vehicle behaviors and algorithms relevant to the MCM mission area. Using these behaviors, they were able to experiment with in-stride re-tasking of individual vehicles, automated generation of search and inspection plans, and task prioritization. However, the most compelling work has been the multi-vehicle arbitration scenario, which uses multiple vehicles to collaboratively complete search and identification phases of the MCM mission in parallel. NSWC PCD is committed to the creation of robust solutions that practically serve the needs of the warfighter. Under ONR sponsorship, a modular open architecture is being designed and built that will not only support the behaviors discussed above, but will also support rapid incorporation of new capabilities from Government and third-party sources. Additionally, NSWC
PCD engineers are leading several working groups that are chartered to identify near-term solutions and develop a transition plan for the integration of autonomous behaviors and tools into existing programs of record. As the demand for autonomy increases, these steps lay the foundation for robust and intelligent autonomy solutions that will transform the littoral battlespace using unmanned systems, and are already being considered as candidates for transition to the fleet within the next few years.