Navy Outlines New Vision for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

Navy Outlines New Vision for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

Keeter, Hunter C

Military robotics may be a long way from Isaac Asimov’s vision of evolved, synthetic intelligence in I, Robot. However, thinking machines already have become familiar sights, flying above or rolling through today’s battle spaces. The U.S. Navy now is on the verge of unveiling a revised master plan that charts the course for new generations of warrior robots to help dominate the seas as well.

The last Navy unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) master plan was approved April 20, 2000. That plan charted a course, from the near-term looking out 50 years, depicting roles and missions for UUVs – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); mine countermeasures; oceanography; communication and navigation; and antisubmarine warfare.

The new version of the plan is likely to emphasize the roles of UUVs as extensions of manned platforms, increasing the spheres of influence dominated by submarines and surface warships in littoral operations. Roger Smith, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for littoral and mine warfare, and Rear Adm. William E. Landay, program executive officer for littoral and mine warfare, lead the development of the new UUV master plan.

What began in 2000 as a concept for a “family” of UUVs performing key missions, may resolve into four distinct classes of UUVs, according to Capt. Paul D. Ims, the Navy’s UUV programs manager.

The four classes of UUVs would be delineated by their size. The plan considers large diameter vehicles of greater than 21 inches; vehicles of 21 inches (similar to the Mk48 torpedo); vehicles of 12-3/4 inches (similar to the lightweight torpedo); and smaller UUVs.

Various UUVs, carrying diverse payloads, may share data and capabilities with each unit in the network adding to the effectiveness of the whole.

According to Jim Thomsen, the executive director of the Navy’s office for littoral and mine warfare, the new vision for networked UUV operations would rely upon more flexibility in the design of individual platforms.

“In some cases, we believe we are going to be reaching the physical limits of what you could get into one vehicle at one time or in one spot on the earth, in the air or on and under the water,” Thomsen told Sea Power. “So it is important that we are able to link platforms, large or small, with other sensors or with other parts of the kill chain.”

Just as shared capability would enable networked operations, the Navy is developing a modular UUV design architecture for sharing subcomponents across different classes. The modular architecture would enable cost effective approaches to research and development, according to Ims.

“The Navy realizes that it becomes very expensive to develop unique UUVs for every mission,” Ims said. “So we think it is important that we can use a lot of the same building blocks for future UUVs.”

The fleet is enhancing its mine warfare capability though UUVs, such as the Long-term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS). LMRS is a sonar-equipped, 21-inch diameter UUV, programmable to search and classify sea mines.

The Navy also has deployed groups of smaller UUVs, such as Hydroid Inc.’s REMUS – for Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS – to combat operations. In 2002 Hydroid, a firm created by the Woods Hole Oceanographie Institute, began producing REMUS vehicles under the Navy’s Semi-Autonomous Hydrographie Reconnaissance Vehicle program. The firm has delivered more than 14 REMUS vehicles to the Navy. Several of these were deployed to the Iraqi port of Um Qasr to support mine-clearing operations there.

Mine warfare is only the beginning for UUVs. The Navy is developing a scalable design architecture for mission reconfigurable vehicles that could take on a variety of missions. Though it remains a far-off goal, UUVs may some day be used to track and trail enemy submarines.

“Track and trail is way out there,” Rear Adm. Stephen E. Johnson, director of undersea technology at Naval Sea Systems Command told Sea Power. “But we make baby steps toward that every year. You have to put it into perspective. [Technology] still is not capable of programming a computer to drive a car. You can keep a car in a lane, but all of the extra things – about judgment, thinking ahead – require human intervention.”

The Navy also is interested in UUVs performing force-protection missions. Force protection could include monitoring port facilities, suspect vessels and security perimeters around U.S. warships.

In 2001, during the Giant Shadow experiment off the Bahamas, the Navy experimented with the then-Naval Oceanographic Office’s Seahorse UUV as a delivery platform forpayloads in support of special operations forces and others ashore. The same type of operation is expected to be part of the Silent Hammer experiment, taking place on the West Coast this fall.

Just as the Pentagon is developing a joint unmanned combat air vehicle, a robot plane capable of deep strike and the suppression of enemy air defenses, the Navy also envisions a combat form of UUV.

“Really out there … we can envision some sort of weapons delivery, some sort of way to influence forces ashore from the UUV,” Ims said.

While providing unmanned vehicles the ability to release weapons remains controversial, the CIA and the U.S. Air Force already have demonstrated this capability. During Operation Enduring Freedom and the war on terrorism, for example, Predator unmanned air vehicles armed with Hellfire antitank missiles attacked targets via remote control in Afghanistan and Yemen.

As the expectations for UUVs evolve, several technical challenges remain. One is gaining access to the data collected by a UUVs sensors.

“There is a lot of focus on the UUV as a vehicle, but the vehicle is part of a system; it is a method of getting sensors and other payloads out to influence the battlespace, and then getting the data back to the warfighter,” Ims said.

One solution may be to transfer data from the UUV to a manned platform, and have trained human operators analyze the data. However, the Navy envisions large networks of interoperating UUVS. These vehicles would generate a huge amount of data. The bandwidth required to move that data would not necessarily be available.

“So where we need to go in some of these mission areas is to be able to do the processing on board the vehicle,” Ims said. “Instead of just transferring data, we would be able to transfer relevant information. Then the decision-maker can get the information directly from the vehicle. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in that area.”

Another challenge is the development of autonomie functioning. An unmanned air vehicle arguably is accessible to its operators at any moment via datalink. The UUV, however, may become totally cut off from its operator.

According to Ims, UUVs must be able autonomously to perform missions and return to their host platforms. Importantly, when missions don’t go according to plan, UUVs must be able to “think” through problems and find ways to accomplish their tasks, without corrective input from their operators.

Finally, a major UUV engineering challenge remains in developing cost-effective, reliable and potent energy sources.

Vehicles such as LMRS carry high-energy lithium batteries. Other technologies are emerging that may provide even greater power-to-weight ratios, a discriminating factor when payload space aboard vehicles comes at a premium.

Fuel cells and small, diesel-electric power plants may hold some answers. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and others also are developing air independent propulsion systems.

One example is the vortex combustor, a kind of engine that would consume aluminum and sea water for fuel. DARPA has been working on the vortex combustor as part of a program called Loki. The Loki project could result in manned or unmanned “fighter” vehicles that would be to submarine warfare what tactical jets have been to carrier-borne naval aviation.

The promises of advanced energy technologies are higher vehicle speeds and longer ranges, someday enabling larger UUVs to deploy from the continental United States.

For industry, the emergence of a new Navy UUV master plan could mean opportunities for development cost-sharing and subcomponent sales. As the service develops modular architectures for its future UUVs, the Navy increasingly will leverage commercial-off-the-shelf materiel, according to Thomsen and Ims.

In some areas, commercial industry may lead the Navy in the development of energy sources, autonomie controls and perhaps sensing technologies. Thomsen noted the Navy would be eager to take advantage of these components as they mature in the private sector.

In other important ways, however, the development of militarily useful UUVs will remain government-led, Ims noted. Capabilities, such as ISR and stealthy operation, are not part of the portfolio for industrial UUV applications.

Today, the oil industry and academia are significant users of UUV technologies. The oil industry uses sophisticated vehicles to monitor undersea pipelines and other infrastructure, according to Johnson. The academic community has developed advanced UUVs for oceanographie research and related applications.

While some commercially developed UUVs have made their way into the defense marketplace, most have had to be heavily modified to carry out warfighting missions.

“I think one of our jobs is to articulate standards and interfaces so that industry can help solve the unique problems we have,” Ims said.


Associate Editor

Copyright Navy League of the United States Sep 2004

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