Crewless Ships in the Navy: Not If, But When
By Sandra I. Erwin
A team of senior Navy officials is examining the future makeup of the U.S. fleet at a time of growing demands and squeezed budgets. One of the expected takeaways is the idea that the Navy can’t continue to do business as usual and will have to turn over some jobs to unmanned vessels and submarines.
How to insert autonomous systems into the fleet is indeed one of the subjects of debate, says naval analyst Bryan Clark, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Clark and other outside experts have participated in a series of “fleet architecture studies” led by the office of the chief of naval operations. Their findings will shape decisions on how to size and organize the future fleet.
Industry insiders see this review as a potential turning point in the modernization of the Navy's fleet. “We have these things now,” says a retired Navy officer speaking about autonomous surface ships and underwater vehicles. Prototypes have been developed and tested, but crewless ships are still considered odd novelties, says the retired officer, who spoke on condition that he not be quoted by name. “These are disruptive technologies” that do not fit neatly into current Defense Department funding lines, he says. “We worship at the altar of the big program of record. It’s not easy to buy one thing at a time and expect it to realize its full potential. We need an architecture that says 'here’s the future mix of manned and unmanned, and let’s migrate to that.'”
Technologists and executives in the robotics industry, he says, are optimistic that the fleet studies will "open the door for autonomous systems to become mainstream.”
The issue of whether the military should develop its own autonomous systems or buy them from the private sector has been a contentious topic of debate. The retired officer describes it as a “religious argument" within the services: Do you want small underwater vehicles to scrum in and out of submarines? If you do, you have to spend a lot of money to make them safe so they do not put submarines at risk. If the mission can be met with vehicles that can be launched from a pier and operate independently, the focus would be less on safety and more on the actual mission. His take: “You probably need a mix of both.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has offered a glimpse into what might be possible. In April it deployed a 132-foot autonomous trimaran — known as anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel — off the coast of San Diego. “The ball is in the Navy’s court,” the retired officer says. After the experiments are finished, the next conversation has to be "What missions can it do?"
Executives from the contractor firm that built the ship for DARPA, Leidos, told industry analysts that they are confident that the performance of this prototype will motivate the Navy to buy more ships. The drone ship, dubbed Sea Hunter, can stay deployed for months at a time at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 per day, compared to $700,000 for a Navy destroyer, estimates defense analyst Byron Callan, of Capital Alpha Partners.
Leidos announced in July it completed initial trials of the vessel. “Sea Hunter is designed to operate for extended periods at sea with no person on board and only sparse supervisory control,” the company stated. While initial tests require a pilot on board the ship, later tests are planned to have no human operators. The two-year program is funded by DARPA and the Office of Naval Research. Upcoming tests will dig deeper into the performance of sensors, the vessel's autonomy suite and compliance with maritime collision regulations.
Top defense contractor Boeing is making a huge bet on autonomous naval vehicles. It opened an 8,100 square-foot research facility in St. Charles, Missouri, to showcase innovations. The company struck a partnership with a Silicon Valley firm to develop a commercial maritime surveillance autonomous ship that it is marketing to U.S. and other nations’ navies and coast guards.
The SHARC, or sensor hosting autonomous remote craft, collects data and shares it in real time. It has been sold to oil and gas companies and other industries for ocean exploration. Thirteen vehicles are now swimming off the coast of Hawaii, streaming data to command centers ashore. “The vision is to have large numbers of low-cost autonomous systems conducting missions that traditionally have required manned fleets,” says Egan Greenstein, senior director of autonomous maritime systems at Boeing Military Aircraft.
The target customers are the U.S. Navy and forces from allies countries that face increased demands for maritime security, he says in an interview. The SHARC will participate in a naval exercise in the United Kingdom this fall. “We want to show can we integrate data and broadcast it to decision makers,” Greenstein says.
The day is not far off when navies will start turning over duties to ocean-going robots, he says. “It’s really about embracing the path. Technologies will emerge to solve maritime problems.” Boeing signed a research agreement with the Naval Research Laboratory for the development of payloads for autonomous vehicles. “We want to see what’s possible,” says Greenstein. “The services recognize that the path into the future is going to have autonomous systems.”
Like other technologies that promise to transform how the military does business, autonomy is not a panacea. “We are on a journey,” Greenstein says. There are significant questions out there about the capability and "self-awareness" of autonomous ships. Today, they can self deploy from point to point, swim, compensate for weather, currents, waves and winds. If a cargo ship gets in the way, they go into self-protection mode, moving out of the way and then resuming their mission. Small vehicles like the SHARC can be deployed in large numbers, he adds. “They work as a fleet to maintain positioning, they communicate their position to each other.”
Technology is advancing quickly, and the levels of autonomy will increase, Greenstein says. Naval drones soon enough will be smart enough to use tactical information to make decisions about where they swim, for instance. “Today it is more about self protection. How do I get out of the way so I’m not run over? Eventually they will understand where the ships are and react to the tactical situation.” Autonomy has progressed from vehicles that just do what they are told and have enough brainpower to stay out of danger, to where they are able to take on more complex missions such as surveillance of enemy waters. “In the future, instead of telling them where to go, we give them a task, and tell them go do it, and call home when you find something.”
Conceivably, the military could deploy autonomous surface ships, submarines and aircraft and have them work together as a surveillance network. “If you can raise the level of autonomy to command all assets and say, ‘search an area and report back if you find something,’ that is the vision of where all this goes: Large numbers of autonomous systems relieving people from having to monitor in real time, continuously.” In theory, Greenstein explains, one could turn over the task of detection and reporting to the autonomous system and only bring the decision maker when there is a need to act on a piece of information.
The burgeoning debate over the use of autonomous ships illustrates the blessings and curse of technology. The Navy, increasingly overextended and under pressure to do more with less, sees robots as a potential “force multiplier.” In the larger U.S. civilian economy, robots can be double-edged swords that increase productivity but also leave millions of people out of work. In a recent Washington Post editorial, David Ignatius warns that the “automation bomb” could destroy 45 percent of the work activities currently performed in the United States. Currently, only 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated, but 60 percent of occupations could soon see machines doing 30 percent or more of the work.