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MILITARY TECHNOLOGY (MILTECH) is the world's leading international tri-service defence monthly magazine in the English language. MILITARY TECHNOLOGY is "Required Reading for Defence Professionals". Follow us on Twitter: MILTECH1

05 May 2015

AUVSI 2015: Maritime Unmanned Systems

The maritime unmanned market has appeared to struggle over recent years in comparison to its burgeoning airborne counterpart although systems being employed for mine countermeasure (MCM) operations look set to unlock future utility elsewhere in the market. Such systems are seeing growing popularity in the operational environment with US Navy (USN) and UK’s Royal Navy platforms conducting routine missions in the Persian Gulf. Here, USVs and UUVs are working in collaboration out of Bahrain with optionally piloted USVs acting as host, deployment and C2 platforms of UUVs under the surface.

US Navy SAR specialists from Explosive Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 1 deploy an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). (Photo: US Navy)

In October 2014, both Navies conducted an exercise on board the USS PONCE amphibious transport dock with a “Mine Hunting USV” (MHU) hosting and deploying Hydroid, a wholly owned subsidiary of Kongsberg Maritime, REMUS 600 UUVs in the Gulf. Equipped with Northrop Grumman AN/AQS-24A side-scan sonar, the MHU was able to conduct an overwatch surface search of the sea’s surface while simultaneously deploying multiple REMUS 600 UUVs, which could be lowered into the water before conducting their own independent searches on the seafloor.

Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS)

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting projects in the MCM arena, which looks set to increase influence in the market is the USN’s Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS), which went operational late last year. Prime contractor Textron Systems Unmanned Systems won the U$33.8 million contract last year comprising a 30-month engineering, manufacturing and development programme based around the company’s Common USV (CUSV) platform.

This particular USV has been integrated into an MCM mission module on board the USN’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as part of an effort to combat magnetic and acoustic mines. Indeed, the UISS is expected to replace a capability gap left by the cancelled Organic Airborne and Surface Influence Sweep system programme, which had been due to be deployed on board the MH-60S rotary wing platform. The UISS programme is expected to be introduced into service in 2017 while the Royal Navy have already expressed an interest in integrating similar technology on board the Type 26 frigate.

Measuring 11.4m in length; 0.66m in height and 3.12m in width, the CUSV can tow nearly 2t in payload and has a range of over two kilometres. The USV includes compatibility with NATO STANAG 4586 for interoperability with coalition forces and currently operates Harris SeaLancet data link and satellite communications. It can also be deployed from land or vessel.
Textron’s CUSV has been designed as a modular platform so could easily be converted into another role in the future, should the USN consider it. Missions could include ISR operations, as well as deployment of non-lethal weapons in a force protection role.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) at a Glance
Remote-controlled or autonomous UUVs could amplify a Navy's effectiveness throughout the slate of missions entrusted to that fighting force. Surface vessels could deploy UUVs for reconnaissance or combat duty, e.g. the US Navy's littoral combat ships (LCS) rely on embarked helicopters and UUVs for anti-submarine and counter-mine missions. Attack submarines, moreover, can carry UUVs sized for launch through their torpedo tubes. Larger, more capable vehicles boasting their own armament are also in the works as an adjunct to the silent service.
Stationing UUVs at such geographic nodes would amplify a Navy’s presence, improving watchfulness for a fleet too small to be everywhere all the time. Such sentinels — especially if technology permits arming them for distant operations — will bolster the prospects for success in such missions as fleet actions, sea denial, blockades, and otherwise controlling major sea routes. A century ago historian Sir Julian S. Corbett catalogued the basic functions Navies perform. For Corbett a Navy exists to dispute a stronger opponent’s command of the sea, wrest away command for itself, and exploit command once it is in hand. That is not a bad way to project the contributions UUVs could make, and to measure success as they join the fleet.
For instance, submarines remain the sea-denial platform par excellence. They can penetrate and wreak havoc in enemy-dominated waters while surface fleets try to assemble combat power sufficient to win command. UUVs can act as the eyes of the undersea fleet and, over time, could extend attack boats’ combat reach beyond the very modest range of their torpedoes. When battle looms, UUVs could push the fleet’s defensive frontier outward, holding surface and subsurface threats at bay while working with other sensors to apprise commanders of what’s transpiring in their environs. Acting as a fleet skirmisher, safeguarding the underwater flank, and helping complete the operational picture is no small accomplishment.
And once a Navy gains control of contested waters, UUVs will still have their part to play. Winning command of the sea confers the prerogative to control shipping, blockade enemy shores, land troops, and on and on. LCS, for example, would likely be assigned to deploy their UUVs to clear minefields before amphibious transports moved inshore to land. Keeping watch over nautical focal points would help the navy enforce maritime quarantines while preventing an enemy from mounting new high-seas threats. UUVs, in short, could become the new workhorses of the fleet.
Saab SEAEYE FALCON Multi-Shot Mine Neutralization System is a portable but extremely powerful system, with its one to one power to weight ratio and is the professional solution for depths of up to 300m in coastal and inshore waters. A wide range of standard tools and accessories can be fitted, as seen in this picture. (Photo: Mönch/DPM)

Littoral Mine Countermeasure (MCM) Operations 

In Europe, ECA Group has also identified potential market growth for USVs and UUVs, especially in relation to littoral operations regarding MCM in particular. The French-based company is currently offering up its INSPECTOR MkII USV for precisely such tasks.

The company last year supplied eight USVs to the French Navy for Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) training missions although company executives explained to MT how important USVs would be to the MCM market moving forward. “Minehunter vessels are not designed for expeditionary missions and need a lot of support and Navies are still requesting an MCM system to fill that role in a better way, whether it be using a non-dedicated ship with full off-board system architecture with portable consoles, or integrated vision with everything deployed from an USV,” an ECA Group spokesperson said.

With the capability to travel up to 12km, the INSPECTOR MkII can carry a variety of sonars including interferometric and synthetic aperture payloads as well as towed side scan sonars, EO cameras and embedded automatic target recognition systems. Relevant to any MHU role, the USV is also capable of carrying UUVs, including the company’s own ALISTER UUV in 9m and 18m configurations.

The French and UK governments are also working closely on a Maritime MCM effort with Atlas Elektronik, DCNS and Thales bidding for preferred partner status. Similarly, both countries are working up options for their own organic programmes with the UK’s Sweep effort expected to downselect a preferred partner in March 2015. Atlas’ ARCIMS USV has already been supplied to the UK’s Royal Navy with a company spokesperson informing MT how the firm was also considering alternative utility beyond more traditional and current roles.

Atlas Elektronik SEAFOX mine neutralisation drone with the Royal Thai Navy. (Photo: Atlas Elektronik)

Thales has teamed up with Ultra Electronics to bid for the UK programme with the pair offering up Thales’ HALCYON USV. Measuring 11.5m in length, 2.9m in height and 3.5m in width, the HALCYON USV has an ability to carry over 2.5t in payload with a maximum range of 300 nautical miles. It includes GPS, radar and AIS suite and can be equipped with EOIR camera, mission planning and C2 nodes.

Another company involved is ASV which is promoting its C-WORKER platform, which can operate for up to 30 days at a time at an average speed of four knots. With a 500kg payload, the C-WORKER can carry EOIR cameras and X-Band marine radar.

Combat Proven Capabilities Out of Israel Waters

The KATANA, a manned/unmanned patrol boat for homeland security and other applications was launched by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in 2014. The KATANA can operate autonomously through the use of an advanced C2 station or controlled by personnel on board. IAI says the vessel has multiple uses, including detecting and tracking ships and boats, protecting exclusive economic zones, harbour security, patrol of shallow coastal and territorial waters, surface and electronic warfare, and offshore platform protection. IAI describes the KATANA as a combat marine system. It is outfitted with advanced communications systems, weapons systems, and sensor payloads.
Rafael’s PROTECTOR is an integrated naval combat system, based on unmanned, autonomous, remotely controlled surface vehicles. Highly manoeuvrable and stealthy, the PROTECTOR can conduct a wide spectrum of critical missions, without exposing personnel and capital assets to unnecessary risk. The PROTECTOR's anti-terror mission module payload includes sensors and weapon systems. The search radar and the TOPLITE EO pod enable detection, identification and targeting operations. The weapon systems are based on Rafael's TYPHOON remote-controlled, stabilised weapon station, capable of operating various small calibre guns. The highly accurate, stabilised weapon station has excellent hit-and-kill probability.

The Republic of Singapore Navy acquired several PROTECTOR USVs from Rafael in 2004. The USV is also in service with the Israeli Navy and several other Navies across the world. Rafael launched the fifth generation 11m PROTECTOR USV variant in October 2012. (Photo: Rafael)

Roles Beyond the Traditional MCM Mission

Potential for USVs beyond the more traditional MCM mission however remains rather elusive although the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) recently unveiling £5 million for R&D into future concepts for USVs. Industry sources, who preferred to remain anonymous during the tender process, confirmed to MT how alternative tasks for such platforms could include situation awareness, ASW, electronic warfare (EW), and force protection, although many parties remained reticent to fully submersing themselves into future capabilities. The source continued: “We will see a proliferation of USVs used for a variety of different uses. There is lots of interest at the moment and we are speaking to a number of countries looking at a USV capability for surveillance off their coastline. Elsewhere, the Middle East is keen on anything new and unmanned but getting the right person to make those decisions can sometimes take a lot of time.”

One alternative capability currently being considered by DARPA is the ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV).  This particular programme, designed to track quiet diesel electric submarines, is expected to begin at-sea testing later this year with an operational prototype following its initiation in August 2012 with three goals including development of a USV which makes redundant any type of human interference. Such a concept would reduce requirements for layout, accessibility, crew support systems and reserve buoyancy. A DARPA spokesperson said: “The objective is to generate a vessel design that exceeds state-of-the art platform performance to provide propulsive overmatch against diesel electric submarines at a fraction of their size and cost.”

The ACTUV offering is also seeking to independently deploy mission modules for extended reach; and demonstrate employment of non-conventional sensor technologies in order to best identify and track electric submarines. At the same time, this would include autonomous compliance with maritime laws and conventions for safe navigation; autonomous system management for operational reliability; and autonomous interactions with an intelligent adversary, DARPA explained. However, the spokesperson also described how such technology would act as a concept demonstrator to apply USV technology to a wider range of missions and configuration.

Leidos has manufactured the prototype that is based on a trimaran vessel manufactured with carbon composites, equipped with navigation suites, EOIR payloads and long and short range sonar and radar technology. A Leidos spokesman described how diesel-electric submarines were quickly becoming one of the biggest threats to naval operations and the $1.8 million commercial shipping industry. “Detecting and tracking these stealthy subs presents a huge challenge even for the USN [and] price tags ranging from $200-300 million put diesel-electric subs within reach of smaller, volatile countries. In fact, Russia has been selling diesel-electric subs to buoy its shipyards, triggering what some are calling an undersea arms race,” he said.

According to industry sources, Algeria, Indonesia, and Venezuela have all ordered such submarines while Iran is understood to operate a fleet of 17 such systems.

In 2014, SeaBotix joined the Teledyne Marine Systems group, bringing in its innovative and diverse underwater observation class MiniROVs designed to perform a multitude of tasks that include maritime security, SAR, hull, pipeline and infrastructure inspection, hazardous environment intervention, aquaculture, sensor deployment, oceanographic research, nuclear applications and more.

Another development which was unveiled to the market at IndoDefence 2014 is Saab’s BONEFISH USV demonstrator which the Swedish company designed in order to gauge market interest in USV. Also a trimaran hull, BONEFISH is fitted with radar, acoustic and EO sensors and communications suite with company officials explaining how it could be used for anti-piracy, surveillance, ASW, MCM, SAR, and EW missions as well as target training and environmental assessment. “The [USV] concept is well-suited for Indonesia’s vast archipelago with about 17,000 islands stretching over nearly two million square kilometres,” a Saab spokesman revealed. “With a coastline of 54,716km to protect and sitting at SE Asia’s maritime chokepoints, such as the Strait of Malacca, Indonesia requires a very large number of surface patrol vessels. USVs provide an opportunity for effective unmanned surveillance and patrol.”

Developed in tandem with Indonesian company PT Lundin, the BONEFISH USV has been designed to, “explore the potential for this class of system with future development dependent on an assessment of the utility of the concept as well as customer demand for the capability.”

Measuring 12m in length, the USV was built at PT Lundin’s Banyuwangi plant with sources informing MT that the vessel had begun sea trials earlier this year. The USV is understood to have a top speed of 40 knots. It is planned that an evaluation period will continue throughout the year, aimed at proving how the USV is capable of carrying a variety of payloads in a modular mission bay.

However, considering the wider international market, 5G International president Robert Murphy, expressed his concern at how the current economic climate had seen any interest from international Navies in USVs hugely reduced. However, he reinforced Saab’s strategy to target the Asia Pacific market, explaining: “Countries in Asia Pacific like Malaysia and Vietnam are considering small versions of the USVs we see in the market today because navy budgets have really been cut back recently.”

5G International describes itself as an R&D specialist company that has designed unmanned Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats measuring three-, nine-, and 11m in length with capacity to conduct MCM and maritime security operations. The company most recently admitted that it was also designing a 4m hull to optimise utility for small USVs ideal for protection of critical national infrastructure, especially suitable for oil and gas platforms. The company is also marketing its HERCULES refuelling USV demonstrator, capable of carrying up to 4,000gal of fuel, providing a mothership concept for operational USVs thereby reducing requirements to return to base. Hercules can operate for two months at a time continuously before requiring a resupply itself. Finally, Murphy revealed how 5G was also designed a specialist USV capable of launching a small VTOL UAVs for ISR tasks. The USV measures 12m in length but it emerged that the technology could also be cross decked onto smaller three- and 4m variants. “We need to build USVs to meet the mission instead of building platforms that can do everything. Designing a USV for missions and area analysis in a harbour or up a river is not going to work off the coast of Singapore of off the mountain ranges of Myanmar. We must fit the vessel to the mission and not vice versa,” Murphy concluded.

Despite lagging behind UAVs for their entire existence, it appears there is still plenty of potential moving forward in the development of USVs. However, industry sources have informed MT that the market needs to “take the plunge” in order to trigger the mass deployment of USVs with others following. Operational capability has already been proven in the MCM role and it appears likely more developed Navies will follow the US model once the UISS goes live. Beyond this, ISR and force protection seem obvious choices for this type of platform, especially in tandem with UUVs.
Andrew White is a regular contributor to MT.

The Kongsberg Hydroid REMUS 100 AUV can be configured to include a wide variety of standard and/or customer specified sensors and system options to meet autonomous mission requirements. (Photo: Mönch/DPM)

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