As unmanned vehicles increasingly protect U.S soldiers and airmen, unmanned watercraft will increasingly protect sailors, says a high-ranking naval officer who manages a part of the Navy’s unmanned vehicles development program.
Eventually, manned vehicles and the current set of unmanned air and surface vehicles will work in collaboration with unmanned watercraft, Capt. Duane Ashton, said at the AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems conference in Washington, D.C. The purpose of using unmanned vehicles “is very clear, we want to get the sailor out of harms way,” he said, and there are several special warfare programs instituted to achieve that goal.
Ashton is the Navy’s “major program manager” for its “Unmanned Maritime Systems Office” (identified as PMS 406). The office led by Ashton is under the Navy’s “program executive office littoral and mine warfare” (PEO LMW) section and is charged with aligning “unmanned maritime vehicle” (UMV) programs with advanced development programs.
Modular vehicles are among the systems under development, according to Aston. “They have to be modular, plug and play open systems,” that provide “quick and mobile controls,” he said. That includes the “modular unmanned surface craft littoral” (MUSCL), which is an example of a user operational evaluation system. It is a portable unmanned surface vehicle (USV) that would go up a river ahead of troops, and focus on the riverbanks, gleaning intelligence that would be sent back, thereby keeping the unit “out of harm’s way,” he said.
However, the MUSCL has a communications problem, according to Ashton. If those craft are deployed in rivers—which have bends and curves—they lose communication once they are “beyond the line of sight” of communications, he said. But it is very important for the unmanned vehicle to get the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to the war fighters, he said.
The Navy has recognized the challenges associated with developing such unmanned watercraft, and has made changes to the “Operational Navy” (OPNAV) guidance document directing the development of those vehicles, according to Ashton. An OPNAV document contains sets of instructions and written orders directing everything from what a piece of equipment is used for, and how to use it properly. The changes to the OPNAV document create an “opportunity for traditional acquisition, and advanced development,” and to be able to bring those together, from science and technology (S&T) through the fielding of systems, he said.
There are several ways of facilitate the development of those vehicles, including increasing the focus on user operational systems, and evaluation systems, according to Ashton. User operated evaluation system in use in prototypes that are deployed fleet will identify where the system is “falling short in terms of capabilities.”
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But the technical problems, she said, are not as tough as the cultural shift as the Navy moves toward greater innovation at every level.