Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV ) is a vehicle that operates at or near the sea surface and has no vehicle operators on board. The USV are increasingly employed as they collect data for longer periods of time, at a fraction of the cost of Research ships, and with wide ranging scientific and industrial applications – from monitoring marine life to military surveillance, piracy control, fisheries protection and the offshore gas, oil and renewables industries.
For Navies operating at or near the sea surface gives USVs the ability to perform continuous surveillance and communicating the dats with suitably-equipped surface, air and underwater assets. USV mission package are Mine Countermeasures (MCM) , Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) , Maritime Security , Surface Warfare (SUW) , Special Operations Forces (SOF) Support , Electronic Warfare (EW) and Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO) Support.
RAND concluded that USVs were ” particularly suitable for missions such as characterizing the physical environment, observation and collection regarding adversaries, mine warfare, military deception/information operations/electronic warfare, defense against small boats, testing and training, search and rescue, and the support of other unmanned vehicles. However, USVs need advanced autonomy and assured communications to complete complex missions, as well as any missions in complex environments. Autonomous seakeeping and maritime traffic avoidance are USV-specific capabilities that likely need to be developed with U.S. Navy involvement.”
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Autonomous technology
USVs have already demonstrated the capability of autonomous navigation and seakeeping operations, collision avoidance, and International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea (COLREGs) compliance, and that evolution continues.
Improvements and evolution of AI technology will add capabilities to these craft in many areas. It will help increase the level of autonomy in the craft such that it can be operated without need for human intervention in its basic movements and navigation. This will, in turn, reduce the operational burden on a craft operator and could lead to additional manpower reductions. While most missions will require one person to operate the vessel and another operator for the payload, decision tools enabled by AI could make a single operator feasible. Advances in AI will also be vital in providing USVs with self-diagnostic technologies for predictive maintenance.
Future control technologies could also enable one operator to control multiple craft simultaneously, allowing their teammates to focus on the payload sensor or weapons. In partnership with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), SIS adapted the intelligent autonomous technologies used by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Program to meet the requirements of the US Navy. SIS’ expansion of intelligent autonomous capabilities for United States defense clients is accelerative and reflects their rapid advancement of autonomous systems.
Swarm I, conducted in 2014, demonstrated the ability for five USVs to perform as a team, under one operator, without safety riders or remote control, “a first for the US Navy.” Swarm (2016) built on those cooperative behaviors by demonstrating a different unmanned mission with 4 USVs. During another event in 2018, SIS successfully demonstrated cooperative autonomous behaviors amongst unmanned surface vehicles during a live demonstration with larger ships. These achievements are a dramatic step forward in America’s continuing dominance of the maritime battlespace.
Spatial Integrated Systems Inc. (SIS) has announced the extension of its Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) Swarming program under the auspices of the Office of Naval Research (ONR). USV Swarm 2019 will set another benchmark for US Navy USV operations as it will be the first integrated heterogeneous eight USV Swarm of autonomous Very Small (class 1) and Small (class 2) USVs, which will conduct a coordinated mission. The objective is to demonstrate the utility of very small and small, inexpensive USVs that can be produced in large numbers quickly.
Advances in AI will also be vital in providing USVs with self-diagnostic technologies for predictive maintenance. Combined with increase component reliability, these technologies will enable craft to go longer between maintenance periods while more predictably knowing when that maintenance is needed. Such logistical schemes, in additional to autonomous refueling, are a key to the future ability of USVs to stay on station for longer durations
Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), through a Science & Technology effort is developing “autonomy kit” that would transform any manned surface ship into unmanned surface vehicle (USV). Different mission kits are being developed more various mission applications, allowing unmanned ships to perform a wide range of tasks currently performed by manned vessels. The kits are exchangeable so that ships can be operated as both manned and unmanned systems, Dr. William Roper, Director of the SCO said. “This can greatly help expeditionary logistics for a ship that is standing off from the shore. Instead of having to use an amphib manned by a lot of people – you have an unmanned boat supply boat,” Roper added.
Wave power meets space technology – for smarter, zero carbon ocean monitoring
Pioneering marine technology start-up, AutoNaut Ltd, has developed the AutoNaut USV propelled entirely by the waves, with zero carbon emissions. It is one of the world’s first small commercial applications of wave propulsion technology and can operate at sea for months at a time, covering hundreds of miles in a week in areas and operations too hazardous for humans. It is so quiet it can measure the whistles and clicks of dolphins over large areas. Remotely controlled from anywhere in the world via satellite, the AutoNaut houses cutting edge, solar powered sensors that capture raw research data, which are analysed, processed and then sent back to the operator on land, anywhere in the world, via a satellite communications network.
The Autonaut team have just completed a two-year business incubation programme at the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre UK, at Harwell (ESA BIC UK), which is managed by STFC. Here they used highly specialised satellite navigation and communication systems to refine their navigation system and control capabilities, and deliver near real-time data collected from the USV sensors. Backed by the ESA BIC UK business support package, which includes £41.5k grant funding and dedicated business support, Autonaut has already taken part in a number of missions including with NATO, the Royal Navy, the UK Met Office and offshore engineering industrie
David Maclean, Director at AutoNaut said: “AutoNaut is revolutionary and will help us to understand our environment better at a fraction of the cost of manned technologies. Our society and economy rely on accurate data sourced from our oceans on a consistent and non-interfering basis, and having access to the business support, technology and expertise through STFC and ESA has made a massive difference to us in our journey towards commercialising our product.”