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Unmanned Vessels Sail Closer to Shore

Ships without captains or crew are cruising from the open seas to the coastline. These developmental craft from both the public and private sectors will improve security and capabilities near land and keep sailors and others out of danger.

The unmanned sea surface vehicle–high tow force (USSV–HTF) is designed to work specifically with the littoral combat ship (LCS). It is intended to tow various sensors and effectors.
Boats will operate in littoral waters and rivers to protect people and assets.

Ships without captains or crew are cruising from the open seas to the coastline. These developmental craft from both the public and private sectors will improve security and capabilities near land and keep sailors and others out of danger.

Since 2003, personnel at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) have been working on two unmanned sea surface vehicles (USSVs) to complement the missions and meet the needs of littoral combat ships (LCSs), the first of which is projected for commission in fiscal year 2008.

The USSVs each have specific functions, and their size and weight are designed to fit the limitations of the LCSs. “In the USSV program, our objective is to develop technologies for USVs [unmanned surface vehicles] that will improve the capabilities of these USVs,” explains Robert A. Brizzolara, USSV program officer at the ONR. He points out that USSV is the term specifically for the two boats his office has developed, and USV is the general term for all unmanned watercraft.

The USSV–high tow force (USSV-HTF) has been optimized for payload capacity and high endurance and to tow various sensors and effectors. The USSV–high speed (USSV-HS) is designed to maintain a high speed in rough waters. The ONR manages the program for these USSVs; the NavalSurfaceWarfareCenter, Carderock Division (NSWCCD), designed both vessels; and Maritime Applied Physics Corporation built both craft. ONR program officials aim to transition the technologies to the LCS program at the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).

The HTF and HS vessels are 39 feet long and 36 feet long, respectively. The USSVs are in the water and have been tested, and they currently are participating in various at-sea experiments. “These are meant for littoral operations, not open seas,” Brizzolara explains.

When work on the USSVs began four years ago, the development team took a unique approach. Instead of starting with a manned boat and converting it for unmanned use, team members designed the craft from the ground up. This tactic ensured the craft would meet the needs of its host ship. “It’s a purpose-built design for LCS missions,” Brizzolara says.

The first step for the USSV program team was a mission requirement analysis conducted by the NSWCCD and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Brizzolara explains that everything staff knew about the LCS mission, how USVs would be used and their payloads was included in the analysis to determine what USSV designs were necessary to meet the LCS’ needs.

NAVSEA is considering the USSV-HTF for transition to the LCS program, and the ONR is working to transition the technology so it will be ready along with the first LCS. Brizzolara believes LCS program personnel currently are interested in the USSV-HTF because it better meets the needs of the first LCS missions that will be assigned to USVs. The USSV-HS could generate more interest later, he says.

In the ONR program, developers built one prototype of each vessel. In a follow-on effort conducted by the ONR, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and NAVSEA, developers are constructing a vessel similar to the original USSV-HTF prototype. NAVSEA plans to use the second version as a prototype of an experimental craft to be operated from the LCS.

Once construction is complete on the new USSV-HTF, it will transition to the LCS program, and personnel there will use it in their experimentation plans. Brizzolara shares that his staff is willing to help and assist as needed but that LCS officials will decide how to acquire additional craft.

For the ONR program, personnel are determining how to design the boats and the autonomous control system. They also are developing a schedule of construction that synchronizes the availability of the USSVs with the launch of the first LCS. Exactly how the USVs are used and how they are tested will be determined by NAVSEA officials.

In addition to the design of the craft and the autonomous control capability, USSV program personnel are examining aspects of autonomous launch and recovery of the USSVs from the host ship. The ONR works with projects developing the payload technology to integrate those payloads onto the USSV, and in the process it creates the complete autonomous system. Brizzolara notes that both USSVs are doing what they were designed to do in terms of vehicle performance and autonomous control and that within the USSV program his staff has demonstrated elements of autonomous recovery of the vessels.

The unmanned recovery aspect would help reduce the LCS’ personnel requirements to recover small boats and reduce the danger to sailors involved in those situations. “We’re trying to keep people out of hazardous areas,” Brizzolara states.

Other organizations also are trying to protect people and resources by developing unmanned watercraft. Three private companies are working together to build a USV that will operate in littoral situations but that also could sail in the open sea and in riverine areas. The vessel has applications to private interests and government missions.

Marine Robotics Vessels International (MRVI), in conjunction with AAI Corporation and SeaRobotics Corporation, has turned a test and evaluation vehicle into the Interceptor USV. The USV uses commercial off-the-shelf technology for surveillance and protection of coastal assets such as oil depots, oil rigs and supertankers near harbors. The Interceptor has the potential to be armed with nonlethal weapons as well. “There’s an awful lot of trouble in the world,” Robert Murphy, managing director of MRVI, observes. The Interceptor debuted at International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) 2007 in the United Arab Emirates.

Murphy’s goal is to provide an alternative to manned armed vessels for surveillance. The Interceptor is fast enough to chase pirates in small boats and has the capability to be autonomous and to complete a mission—such as sentry duty—on its own. Users can integrate a variety of commercial packages into the USV, including a nonlethal weapon that uses sound to deter enemies. The cruise ship attacked by pirates off the Somali coast in 2005 used such a sonic device to ward off its assailants.

Other packages include sensors, sonar, radar and additional nonlethal deterrents such as water cannons. Murphy emphasizes the danger of firing guns in harbors and touts the benefits of other, less deadly options. With water cannons, the USV could fill an attacking ship with water. “We prefer nonlethal solutions,” he shares.

Murphy likens being at sea to being in outer space—there is no one to call for immediate help. According to Murphy, ships currently are sailing with no security. “They need to start protecting these vessels,” he states. As robots continue to become smarter, they can reduce the danger to humans. “It takes the threat of losing a human being out of [missions],” he shares.

The USSV–high speed, built purposely for use with the LCS, can move at high speeds in rough waters.
According to Murphy, the Interceptor’s 11-meter version can be used for over-the-horizon voyages on rough seas. The 7-meter boat is for littoral zones, rivers and bays. The Interceptor reaches speeds of up to 50 miles per hour with a cruising speed of 35 to 45 miles per hour.

Personnel control the USV remotely through a radio link to a command station. The vehicle also can operate autonomously with an onboard computer guiding the vessel on a predetermined course and ordering prescribed tasks. Onboard sensors adjust missions as necessary. The Interceptor includes a 266 Steyr multifuel engine and Hamilton waterjet propulsion.

SeaRobotics developed the operator interface, boat control and communications system, and actuator and performed some system engineering. The company is a manufacturer of small USVs meant primarily for scientific purposes. According to Don Darling, president of SeaRobotics, staff leveraged some of the background they had from their experience with the smaller USVs’ hardware and software. In doing so, they provided a flexible interface for integrating above- and below-surface sensors. Darling shares that the Interceptor has the ability to monitor activities above the water such as boat traffic or targets and the capability to monitor using sonar and other sensor devices. “To a great extent, that’s the world our small USVs live in—underwater sensing,” he explains.

The littoral craft has shallow jet propulsion and no rudders, so personnel can use it in shallow water. Murphy believes this makes the USV good for drug interdiction, especially when carriers use rivers for transporting the illegal substances.

Murphy says the Interceptor could benefit shipping companies and oil companies, which have concerns with assets coming into and out of port in the Middle East. It also could provide protection for oil fields. Murphy cites the Strait of Malacca as an area where tankers could use protection.

Now, about 10,000 oil tankers—prohibited from carrying their own weapons—are in the ocean without protection, according to Murphy’s estimate. The Indian navy currently is helping the U.S. Navy protect U.S. ships in the Strait of Malacca. “The Navy can’t be everywhere,” he states. He also references the capture of British sailors and Royal Marines by Iran in March. If an unmanned vessel had been patrolling the area, no personnel would have been in harm’s way. “I don’t think the world climate is getting much better,” he says.

Murphy explains that for customers to load the Interceptor with the right equipment for their requirements, they need a mission and area analysis. Factors to take into consideration include the type of assets being protected and whether they are located in a port, in a harbor or offshore. Another issue is whether the craft will be used at night. “Each mission will probably require a different sensor package,” Murphy says.

The Interceptor is modular, and users can make some variations to what they purchase. For example, to keep costs down for poorer countries, MRVI can swap out a $300,000 to $500,000 camera for a $3,000 to $5,000 one. In addition to security and surveillance, users could employ the Interceptor to refuel ships at sea or add a petroleum sniffer to determine whether a ship is purging its bilges. Murphy had a request from an African nation concerned about other countries stealing fish from an area where fishing is the livelihood for citizens. That government could use the USV to record video and prosecute offenders.

Murphy says the Interceptor is in the birthing stage, and all its capabilities and applications are unknown. “I have no idea where it’s really going to go,” he explains. “We’re taking it one step at a time.”

Web Resources
Office of Naval Research: www.onr.navy.mil
NavalSea Systems Command: www.navsea.navy.mil
Marine Robotics Vessels International: www.mrvint.com
SeaRobotics Corporation: www.searobotics.com