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DARPA’s NOMARS plans long endurance completely unmanned warship for surveillance, targeting, electronic warfare and strike warfare operations

In 2018, China surpassed the U.S. Navy as the world’s largest naval force. A recent photo of a Chinese shipyard taken by an airline passenger showed nine destroyers under construction and an aircraft carrier. China has now launched a new “world-leading unmanned warship” that is supposedly ready for combat, Chinese media reports. The JARI multi-purpose unmanned combat vessel, a new product of the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, is 50 feet in length and displaces 20 tons. Chinese media reports that this ship is capable of conducting the same missions as China’s Type 052 destroyers, namely air-defense, anti-ship and anti-submarine missions.


Chinese military observers refer to China’s latest development as a “mini Aegis-class destroyer” because of its radars, vertically-launched missiles and torpedoes, the Global Times reports, referencing the US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, many of which are equipped with powerful Aegis radars, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The JARI can, the Global Times reports, be controlled remotely or operate autonomously, although more testing is required before it can fully do the latter. Chinese military analysts have talked about this vessel being used with other drone ships to create a swarm.


The US is pushing for the development of unmanned vessels as part of its goal to expand the US Navy and allow for more distributed operations in wide areas like the Pacific. The US military has experimented with small crewless swarm boats, as well as medium-sized unmanned surface vessels like the Sea Hunter. In recent years DARPA has spent considerable efforts on the development of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) with the agency previously developing the 40m-long Sea Hunter platform and the Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS). INLS, known as “Sea Train”, is designed to use a mix of powered and unpowered USVs to transport equipment and supplies.


That has led the U.S. Navy to aggressively push toward an LUSV equipped with a vertical launching system, or VLS, to get the punch of a missile-shooting frigate for less money. “We can’t continue to wrap $2 billion ships around 96 missile tubes in the numbers we need to fight in a distributed way against a potential adversary that is producing capability and platforms at a very high rate of speed,” the U.S. Navy’s top officer, Adm. Michael Gilday, said in recent comments. Senior Navy officials have talked about the LUSV as a kind of external missile magazine that can autonomously navigate to and integrate with the force, then shoot its missiles and return for reload, keeping the big manned surface combatants in the fight and fielded longer.


The U.S. Navy is enthusiastically pursuing a new architecture for its surface and subsurface fleets that gradually reduces dependence on expensive manned platforms for many traditional functions like surveillance, targeting, electronic warfare and strike warfare. But one of the issues with that architecture is the problem of maintaining them without a crew aboard.


The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)  has now launched  No Manning Required, Ship (NOMARS) programme with a broad agency announcement (BAA). Under NOMARS, DARPA is seeking a vessel that could operate completely unmanned at sea for extended periods of time. DARPA said in the BAA it wants to ‘explore the NOMARS design space from Conceptual Design Review (CoDR) through Preliminary Design Review (PDR) and system definition.’


The agency is looking for  potential vessel which would challenge the ‘traditional naval architecture paradigm’ by creating a ship that eliminates all the design considerations associated with housing a crew. DARPA has set aside $41m for the development of the programme and design of the NOMARS platform, which should be able to operate for up to a year at sea before requiring maintenance. The agency at this time does not plan to build an operational vessel, but rather an ‘X-ship’ demonstrator that can be used as a proof of concept for the NOMARS.


DARPA’s work comes as the Navy aggressively seeks unmanned vehicle technology and pursues multiple USV programs as it experiments with a new fleet architecture. Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently called for the Navy to build toward a fleet of more than 500 ships that would include a mix of both manned and unmanned vessels.


NOMARS program

The No Manning Required Ship (NOMARS) program seeks to design a ship that can operate autonomously for long durations at sea, enabling a clean-sheet ship design process that eliminates design considerations associated with crew. NOMARS focuses on exploring novel approaches to the design of the seaframe (the ship without mission systems) while accommodating representative payload size, weight, and power.


By removing the human element from all ship design considerations, the program intends to demonstrate significant advantages, to include size, cost, at-sea reliability, survivability to sea-state, and survivability to adversary actions such as stealth considerations and resistance to tampering. The program also will strive for greater hydrodynamic efficiency via hull optimization without requirements for crew safety or comfort.


NOMARS is focused solely on the design of a novel sea frame rather than a vessel complete with mission systems, but DARPA added the notional payload space is 23ft by 12ft by 9ft. Avicola described the program as an experiment in putting aside some of the traditional elements of designing ships because NOMARS won’t be developed around the needs of people aboard.


To get after that aspect, the NOMARS program is going to split into two tracks.

“Track A (Integrated Seaframe Design and Maintenance) will create a framework to evaluate potential design trades against performance requirements, both in terms of the design of the human-less seaframe, as well as the maintenance architectures that would be needed to operate the seaframe,” the solicitation read.


“Track B (Enabling Sub-system Technologies) will allow for agile development of relevant subsystem technologies, with a focus on self-adaptive health management for systems relevant to and of similar complexity as that associated with the hull, mechanical, and electrical systems of a seaframe.”


Nomars Awards

DARPA has awarded seven contracts for work on Phase 1 of the NOMARS program, which seeks to simultaneously explore two competing objectives related to unmanned surface vessels (USV) ship design: (1) the maximization of seaframe performance when human constraints are removed; and (2) achieving sufficient vessel maintenance and logistics functionality for long endurance operations with no human crew onboard. NOMARS aims to disrupt conventional naval architecture designs through creative trade space explorations that optimize useable onboard room considering a variety of constraints. This should pave the way for more capable, affordable small warships that can be procured and maintained in large numbers.


Track A is starting from scratch to pursue a new ship design and track B focuses more on individual technologies that could be employed on NOMARS or manned ships, Avicola said.


Autonomous Surface Vehicles, LLC, Gibbs & Cox Inc., and Serco Inc. received Phase 1 Track A awards, and will work toward developing novel NOMARS demonstrator conceptual designs. These awards will focus on maximizing vessel performance gain across new design criteria, with potential considerations to include: unusual hull forms, low freeboard, minimizing air-filled volumes, innovative materials, repurposing or eliminating “human space” exploring distributed system designs, and developing architectures optimized for depot-maintenance.


The DLBA division of Gibbs & Cox was selected by DARPA to explore the trade space for clean-sheet vessel designs developed without any provision for crew on board. The intent of the effort is to create a paradigm shift in the design of marine surface vehicles as the industry transitions from manned to unmanned platforms, while leveraging newly established and developmental technologies to increase capability, increase reliability, and reduce total ownership cost.


DLBA have assembled a team of subject matter experts and industry leaders to explore the many research areas of this program, some of which are: hull, mechanical and electrical systems; self-adaptive health monitoring and predictive analytics; power generation, distribution, and energy storage; as well as advanced depot-based maintenance concepts. The company will assess the interdependencies of the technical domains and evaluate each domain against overarching variables of cost, endurance, reliability, and manufacturability to ensure that the vessel design is optimized in all aspects of performance, production, and maintainability.


Barnstorm Research Corporation and TDI Technologies, Inc. received Phase 1 Track B awards, and will develop robust approaches to ship health-monitoring via novel Self-Adaptive Health Management (SAHM) architectures, which will be pivotal to achieving NOMARS at-sea endurance and reliability objectives. InMar Technologies and Siemens Corporation also received Phase 1 Track B awards; the former will develop new techniques for morphing hull structures to maximize performance, while the latter will implement toolsets previously developed through the DARPA TRADES program to design optimized material structures for novel NOMARS ship concepts.


NOMARS is expected to uncover future benefits through improved understanding and design of unmanned surface warships. In Phase 1, performers will conduct large trade space exploration studies which will provide insights and tools for future USV ship development programs. Following this, Phases 2 and 3 of the program will build prototype hardware demonstrating some of these concepts, culminating in an “X-ship” seaframe that can be used for demonstration, testing, and future ship design experiments.


The companies exploring potential designs do not need to account for passageways for people to move through, maintenance areas crew members could access, and the potential for seasickness, he noted. “All of those aspects go into ship designs. And so there are well-known naval architecture rules of thumb and design principles that naval architects use to design ships,” Avicola said. “We’re basically saying, start from a clean sheet of paper and examine all of those design choices, with this other question in mind — how do you make the ship reliable without any human movements and how do you design the ship so it’s maximally efficient if you don’t have to worry about all that stuff I just told you about.”


NOMARS isn’t only focused on the ship. The goal for NOMARS is two-fold. In addition to seeking a ship design created without considerations for humans onboard, DARPA is also exploring how it can maintain an unmanned ship that performs lengthy transits and does not need humans to perform the sustainment work while on the vessel.


Understanding how unmanned ships can be optimally designed for cost-effective, scalable maintenance is a critical piece of the design trades being explored. At the conclusion of this program, it is envisioned that NOMARS will have significantly improved our knowledge and understanding of how to build large numbers of affordable and reliable unmanned warships. This, along with insights about ways flotillas of such ships can be effectively maintained and operated, will enable new capabilities for the U.S. Navy.


Avicola described the track B awards, which went to five different companies, as having a “narrower” focus than the pursuit of a wholly new ship design in track A. “If a performer — let’s say had a novel engine technology for the sake of argument — that they thought might make a difference, they could have proposed that to a Track B proposal, which is not the entire trade space.” Avicola said, providing a hypothetical example.


“But we could fund that research with the idea that it would either affect ships in general, and therefore be useful to the Navy, or specifically, could enable the NOMARS future ship designs by exploring that technology and bringing it to a level where one of the Track A performers could incorporate that into their design, if they thought there was merit to do so,” he continued. “That’s really the difference between track A and track B.”


“Barnstorm Research Corporation and TDI Technologies, Inc. received Phase 1 Track B awards, and will develop robust approaches to ship health-monitoring via novel Self-Adaptive Health Management (SAHM) architectures, which will be pivotal to achieving NOMARS at-sea endurance and reliability objectives,” DARPA said in the release. “InMar Technologies and Siemens Corporation also received Phase 1 Track B awards; the former will develop new techniques for morphing hull structures to maximize performance, while the latter will implement toolsets previously developed through the DARPA TRADES program to design optimized material structures for novel NOMARS ship concepts.”


In describing the portion of NOMARS devoted to the maintenance of unmanned vessels, Avicola compared the ships to aviation platforms. While unmanned and manned aircraft typically require a similar maintenance structure – where a ground crew provides sustainment in between sorties – Avicola said unmanned ships “break the paradigm” because while manned vessels are maintained by the crew aboard, the NOMARS concept removes the crew from the equation.


“So now we take a ship that goes out to sea for some period of time –say months — comes back to port, and now a ground crew swarms over it, so it’s more like the airplane model, right? So how do you design the ship, so that it can be accessible to that maintenance paradigm where you maintain it from the outside in between sorties? Our sorties are months, not hours or days, but it’s still the same idea,” Avicola said. “And let’s say you had 50 ships that you want to maintain at any given period of time, how do you make it so that it’s almost like an assembly line process, so that it’s amicable to scaling?”


“So you bring the ship into a depot – you know this is completely notional, right — this is something that the performers are going to go explore. But imagine — as an idea — that you bring the ship to the pier, you lift the ship out of water because they’re not very big ships,” he continued. “You’ve seen boat hoists lift fishing boats out of the water — same kind of thing – maybe I lift it out of the water, put it on a pad, and then somehow I take it apart, do whatever I need to do, put it back together, put it back in the water.”


Should companies succeed in the trade study work, Avicola said the program would ideally lead to a second and third phase in which DARPA would seek proposals and ultimately a prototype of a vessel that meets the design requirements the companies explored in the first phase. “If we can fundamentally redesign how unmanned ships are designed compared to — if we can unlearn all the lessons we’ve learned for manned ships that are no longer applicable for unmanned ships, we very well might have enabled that vision of larger fleets of cost-effective unmanned ships that the Navy keeps describing, and I think that’s a very exciting goal,” Avicola said.


Transition to Navy

Gregory Avicola, the NOMARS program manager, told USNI News in a recent interview that DARPA has had conversations with Navy offices like PMS-406, the service’s program executive office for unmanned and small combatants, and the Surface Development Squadron, which has been tasked with developing the concept of operations for unmanned surface vehicles, since the agency started the NOMARS initiative.


“If we do have a really successful program, how do we transition it? The answer is — so far — what we’ve been doing is have closely linked coordination with the Navy offices that care about this sort of stuff. So PMS-406, in particular, we’ve been bringing along for all of our technical discussions. And when we get to phase two, we expect to partner up with them in terms of making sure that the [request for proposals] we put out has things that are crucial in there . . . if we’re going to go do demonstrations with them, things like that,” Avicola said.


“We’ve been talking to SURFDEVRON, which would be — that’s the Surface Development Squadron — which would be in charge of testing and experimentation with the ship once DARPA’s done with it, presumably,” he continued. “So making sure that they’re part of the process… from the very beginning so that they know what we’re doing, and they have the ability to give us their thoughts and help guide the program, to a certain extent.”


PMS-406 is overseeing Navy programs like the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle and MUSV, while SURFDEVRON One currently has a Sea Hunter prototype that originated as a DARPA program. SURFDEVRON One is slated to receive a second Sea Hunter this fiscal year, as it continues experimentation.


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