Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unmanned Systems in Transition: From War to Peace, From Military to Commercial

by Dr Bill Powers, Research Fellow Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities Futures AssessmentDivision, Futures Directorate, earl.powers.ctr(at) 

Military procurement and operations are moving from war to peace while unmanned systems research, development, and manufacturing are moving from military to commercial use. 

As forces redeploy from operations in the Middle East, the peace-time use of unmanned systems (UMS) by the military will reflect a subsequent decrease. Concurrently, progress is being made to provide access to civil airspace, thus enhancing the potential use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by civil authorities and commercial users. As these transitions occur, there will be myriad adjustments required by both manufacturers and users of UMS. This will provide opportunities for UMS to be used in ways that are currently only imagined…or demonstrated via YouTube videos. Commercial use of UMS is poised to become a far larger market than military employment has ever been. Conversely, the advances realized in the commercial sector, especially regarding autonomy, may well be transferable to military employment through the use of commercial off-the-shelf technology.

As of January 2014 there were more than 2400 different unmanned aerial systems available from more than 715 companies; more than 700 unmanned ground systems from 295 companies; and more than 740 unmanned maritime vehicles from 281 companies. The potential exists for unmanned systems to become an integral part of many aspects of our lives in the next few years.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s (AUVSI) economic report projects that expansion of UAS technology alone will create more than 100,000 jobs (70,000 in the first three years) and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the U.S. during the first decade following U.S. airspace integration.

UMS are in a commercialization phase and are being used in a variety of civil and commercial applications1 . Some of the more noteworthy are: aerial and wildfire mapping2 , agricultural monitoring, disaster management, thermal infrared power line surveys, telecommunication, weather monitoring, television news coverage and sporting events, environmental monitoring, oil and gas exploration, freight transport, law enforcement, commercial photography, advertising, and broadcasting. Academia has recognized the potential and has committed to providing the requisite training and education that will underpin the commercial use of UMS with numerous well-known colleges and universities providing degrees that are UAS and robotics related.

In a recent compendium of future oriented studies focusing on foreseeing, two areas made nearly every list as significant technology areas that will impact the next 30 years: robotics and autonomous systems. There are four primary science and technology (S&T) areas that potentially will radically affect future robotics.

First is neuroscience and artificial intelligence, probably the most contentious. Many scientists claim that advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence are laying the foundation for giving UMS the ability to reason and decide autonomously. They predict that UMS will become part of the social landscape and that as autonomy and intelligence grows, these systems will raise difficult questions about the role of personal responsibility and “machine rights”. The potential dark side to the issue is that systems left to their own devices will enable nearly anyone to employ UMS in a variety of scenarios including as lethal devices.

Second is sensors and control systems that will be necessary to interact safely and effectively with humans. As they become more integrated into society, we will face challenging legal and regulatory issues around how much autonomy robots should be granted. As robotics employment becomes more civil oriented, there will be increasing demand for capable, lightweight, inexpensive payloads that contribute to increased automation and autonomy.

Third is power and energy. Research into advanced power storage and management will enable UMS to operate for hours or days at a time, a necessary step to realizing the full potential of autonomous systems.

Fourth is human-UMS interaction with systems that can partner with humans to perform complex, real-world tasks. In military parlance, this is known as manned-unmanned teaming (MUMT) and in the civilian world, human-robot interaction (HRI). HRI implies a close interaction between the robotic system and the human where robots and humans share the workspace but also share goals in terms of task achievement. This close interaction needs new theoretical models to improve the robot’s utility and to evaluate the risks and benefits of HRI for society. In the manufacturing arena, for example, Carnegie-Mellon faculty and students are researching systems where robots and humans can easily swap the initiative in task execution3 . The demand for commercial systems that are more and more autonomous will increase as users seek to decrease the training required to operate them and decrease the “hands on” nature of systems that are automated but have little autonomy.

The future of UMS is destined to be refined by the transition from military to commercial use but the probable demand for increased capability and autonomy will ultimately present challenges to law enforcement agencies and governments as these technologies are used for activities beyond the peaceful commercial uses for which they are intended. The advances that will almost assuredly occur in autonomy as commercial UMS become more prevalent will make autonomous systems more and more capable and potentially more lethal when used by terrorists or criminals.

1 Market Intel Group (MiG), November, 2010 
2 Predators improve wildfire mapping: Tests under way to use unmanned aircraft for civilian purposes, Tribune Business News, August 26, 2007 
3 Carnegie-Mellon University Robotics Institute 2005-2010 Research Guide,, 10 April 2014

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER News.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Can small AUVs Work at Sea?

The researchers at CoCoRo continue to push the limits of autonomy and swarming behavior with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).  Recently, they've taken their AUVs out of the controlled laboratory tanks and into the wild, with small scale tests in ponds, lakes, and protected ocean harbors. These robots are prototypes designed to explore small scale autonomous group behavior.  But the ocean tests hint at possibilities of using smaller marine robots to perform useful functions.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles employed in military and research operations range in size from man portable, weighing less than 100 pounds, to monsters such as Boeing's Echo Ranger, which weighs more than 5,000 kilograms.

Small scale AUVs weighing less than a few kilograms or so are limited in endurance primarily due to battery size.  More importantly, the ocean environment presents a number of challenges for tinier AUVs including surf and currents, poor visibility, and even hungry marine predators.   But CoCoRo's tests of their "Lily" and "Jeff" robots are early indications that these types of AUVs can operate on a limited scale in ocean conditions.

What say you Naval Drones readers?  Can small AUV's do real work in a maritime environment? If so, what are some potential applications for mini-AUVs? Can the obstacles the ocean presents to AUVs be overcome with larger numbers of vehicles or swarming behavior?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Exploring Unmanned System Autonomy in the DoD

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER Newsby LCDR Nathaniel Spurr, NPS Systems Engineering Student, ncspurr(at) 

The objective of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) symposium held on February 24th 2015 at the National Defense University was to foster an open, unclassified discussion regarding the potential that unmanned system autonomy has within the Department of Defense (DoD) in the 2025 timeframe. This topic was of critical importance to the development of SEA-21A’s integrated project that seeks to provide a recommended maritime system of systems (SoS) to support over-the horizon targeting (OTHT) in a contested littoral environment during the same period. The symposium began with a keynote address by General James E. Cartwright, USMC (Ret), former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff where he emphasized the partnered role of autonomy and human interaction, followed by presentations from various discussion panels comprised of government, military, and industry subject matter experts to address autonomous system limitations, their associated operating environments, and perspectives on current and future military progress.

From the symposium’s outset, it was clear that one of the most important points when discussing autonomy (in any capacity) was to first properly define the term. In this day and age of unmanned systems and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), the word autonomous is often misused. Additionally, it is important to note that there are few (if any) fully autonomous systems currently in use by the DoD. As Paul Scharre of the Center for New American Security (CNAS) defines it in his article “Between a Roomba and a Terminator: What is Autonomy?” “…autonomy is the ability of a machine to perform a task without human input.” He continues by defining an autonomous system as “…a machine, whether hardware or software, that, once activated, performs some task or function on its own.” This definition implies a certain level of “thinking” or inference by the autonomous machine, thereby suggesting that it is capable of learning. Therefore, describing unmanned systems like Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8 FireScout, for example, as “autonomous” isn't quite accurate. While some of its tasks such as takeoff and landing have been automated like many of our existing commercial and military aircraft have, they are not truly autonomous in nature because those tasks still require a human to interact with the system through the input of specific waypoints for navigation or defined parameters for takeoff and landing (e.g., desired glide slope, airspeed, and altitude). Additionally, in the performance of these tasks, these systems still require a human “on” the loop (i.e., human supervision), so the tasks, though automated, are not truly autonomous.

With the definitions of and differences between “autonomous” and “automated” established, much of the symposium’s discussion focused on the current state of unmanned systems and what progress might be seen in the DoD by 2025. It is important to note that it was of universal agreement by both the panel experts and the audience that implementation of autonomous lethality (or “weaponized autonomy”) in the DoD was unlikely for the foreseeable future due to the significant cultural, ethical, and policy concerns surrounding its use. Similarly, there was also mutual agreement across the symposium’s attendance that unmanned platforms will always augment manned platforms, with the former unlikely to completely replace the latter in DoD use. This also reinforces Scharre’s position that the term “Full Autonomy” (human “out” of the loop) is meaningless and that we should instead focus on “…operationally-relevant autonomy: sufficient autonomy to get the job done.” These associated levels of operationally-relevant autonomy will, therefore, continue to have a human either “in” or “on” the loop and keep the current and future DoD unmanned systems focused on the relationship between the human and the machine as autonomy continues to bring the information age into the robotics age.

All opinions expressed are those of the respective author or authors and do not represent the official policy or positions of the Naval Postgraduate School, the United States Navy, or any other government entity.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Surf Zone Robotic Platform

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER News.
By Frederick E. Gaghan, Director of Program Development, Applied Research Associates 

The near-shore environment is one of the most dynamic and technically challenging for both man and machine. Significant research efforts have been conducted to investigate sea-floor crawling robots, but they usually involve “water-proofing” a standard ground robot and attempting to operate it underwater. These designs often experience difficulties in maintaining positional accuracy or operability due to the water flow and wave action.

Over the course of several months, ARA studied two key engineering concepts for the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) that directly affect the ability of a
robotic system to operate in the surf-zone (SZ); 1) platform hull shape and, 2) propulsion.

To address platform shape a study was completed of a horseshoe crab’s carapace as a biomimetic representation for the hull shape of a robotic system (Figure 1). It was hypothesized that a hull shape based on a horseshoe crab would provide the appropriate balance between lift and drag, and allow hydrodynamic forces in the Very Shallow Water (VSW)/SZ to assist in the ability to station keep and maneuver without the need for excessive weight or a complex propulsion system to achieve platform stability and traction. The study focused on answering the following questions:

• Can a biomimetic hull design provide better stability in the dynamic wave conditions found in the VSW/SZ?
• Is the required scale of this hull design sufficient for carrying a usable payload and other system components?
• What are the maximum flow vectors for which the biomimetic hull can remain effective?
• What are the resultant forces from those maximum flow vectors?
Figure 1 (baseline model)                    Figure 2 (Archimedes Screw)
Several biomimetic hulls were modeled and underwent simulated and empirical testing in a water channel. The empirical testing was used to validate the data obtained from the Computational
Fluid Dynamics simulations used to identify a more effective hull shape.

To address locomotive factors a separate study was completed using an Archimedes screw drive as the mode of propulsion to assess platform traction and mobility (Figure 2). An Archimedes screw was chosen because of its ability to operate in various mediums with varying flow rates. It was hypothesized that an Archimedes screw with optimal geometry could provide the tractive force to propel a robotic system. Archimedes screw drives have been successfully used on larger underwater robots, such as those found in the deep sea mining industry, but it has not been widely applied to a robotic system in the near shore environment.

A test bed was designed to measure the speed, forces, and displacements created by an Archimedes screw interacting with various mediums. Several drive designs with different barrel diameters, flange heights, and flange depths were empirically tested to record efficacies in a range of mediums, including water, sand, and pebbles to answer the following questions:
Figure 3
• Can the Archimedes screw drive be scaled appropriately for a small to medium robotic system?
• What performance characteristics (speed, efficiency, tractive force) would this system provide?
• How will the system perform across a variety of medium?

Results of the two studies confirmed that is possible to design a biomimetic hull shape to improve stability and an optimized geometry for an Archimedes screw that would provide good tractive force on the aquatic floor in the dynamic wave conditions found in the VSW/SZ (Figure 3).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Using Unmanned Systems For Anti-Piracy

Second Prize Winner, 2015 CIMSEC High School Essay Contest (reprinted with the permission of CIMSEC).
The issue I would like to address in this essay is piracy. Piracy has been a threat to the safety of the seas since the seas were first used for transport and it has been a danger ever since. From the Barbary Corsairs to the privateers of the Caribbean, pirates have found ways to succeed or even thrive no matter the situation. For years pirate skiffs from Somalia have been attacking marine traffic to hold the ships and/or their crews for ransom. These brazen attacks have drawn the attention of the media and even, in the case of the Maersk Alabama, Hollywood. Of course any security issue that comes to the attention of the general public has first passed through the halls of numerous defense ministries across the globe so it should come as no surprise that before, during, and after these events, efforts were made by various navies including the US Navy and a coalition task force from the European Union to combat this growing problem. In this essay I would like to address what they have done and how it could be done better and in a more sustainable manner.
The primaryMQ-4C Triton BAMS UAS approach was taken thus far is to use large surface combatants such as frigates and destroyers as escorts for merchant ships as well as touring African nations and training their respective navies in counter-piracy operations. These measures, when combined with better safety measures taken by commercial vessels, have been extremely effective since 2012 and attacks off Somalia have become almost vanishingly rare at this point in time.1 This being said, these measures are fairly expensive both in money and in combat forces and while the threat off the Horn of Africa has been put into remission temporarily, the underlying issues that lead to the growth of piracy in the region remain.2 Thus if the governments responsible for this crackdown on piracy wish to continue to suppress piracy without devoting significant monetary resources and a handful of large surface combatants to the region a change in strategy is required.
Currently the platforms responsible for this mission are surface combatants and Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft or MPRAs. These platforms belong to three multinational forces and four single state task forces are deployed in the region.3 This, in my opinion, is overkill. While the current system has worked, it is large and inefficient and when the political will runs out this bureaucratic nightmare will be one of the first things to go. Thus there is a need for immediate change.
First of all, the platforms now being used for security operations are not ideal for the job. The P-3s and other manned MPRAs used for wide area maritime surveillance in the area are high value assets in the navies of their respective countries and can be used for missions as diverse anti-submarine to search and rescue missions. In contrast, the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial System was designed without the anti-surface and anti-sub capabilities of most MPRAs and focused instead on long endurance patrol of large bodies of water. With an acquisition cost only 68% of the P-8A (the US Navy’s current MPRA)4 along with lower operational costs, the Triton is the clear choice for maritime patrol in low threat environments such as the coast of Somalia.
As for surface combatants, the frigates and destroyers currently allocated for these missions are large and often significantly over-armed for confrontations with pirates in small motorboats. An alternative would be smaller platforms, both manned and unmanned, which could provide sufficient armament and speed to effectively combat the threat while requiring significantly less time, money, and logistical support.
The manned platforms suited to this task that are available for use today are the Cyclone patrol ships, eight of which are currently forward based in the Persian Gulf, the Mk. VI Patrol Boat, and the Mk. V Special Operations craft. These craft could be used as a rapid response force, responding to threats at speeds of between 35 knots (the Cyclone) and 50 knots (the Mk V) with Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (or ISR) support from Triton UASs in the area. Of course these platforms unfortunately lack the persistence afforded by larger displacement surface combatants, which is where the Unmanned Surface Vehicle comes in. While the manned platforms listed above are an ideal and sufficient force to deal with crises such as the successful hijacking of a ship, they lack the ability to stay on station in the shipping lanes for long durations. Having these vessels in position to intercept any threats detected by airborne search radar is essential to prevent hijackings before they happen. The US Navy as well as a number of others have invested in the development of USVs primarily to protect large combatants from swarms of small, hostile boats armed with short range anti-ship missiles. Unfortunately the USVs currently in inventory are not armed but models in the near future will be.
With all these niches filled, a comprehensive anti-piracy strategy begins to emerge. First, a small, manned contingency response group, based in the gulf and rotated through ports in Yemen and other friendly nations will be constantly in the area to safeguard against crises. Second, the unmanned surface element will patrol threatened areas regularly to defend shipping against small-scale attacks and will be constantly on station, ready to intercept threats if and when directed to do so. Finally, the Triton element will provide a persistent “eye in the sky” for surface elements.
Piracy is an issue, both off the horn of Africa and around the world but as we have seen in the past few years it can be beaten. I believe that with a force such as the one described here, navies around the world could use the advantages of new technology to fight this age old threat.
1. US Office of Naval Intelligence, Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly Report for 8-14 January 2015, pp. 2 Table 1, Available on-line: 
2. Jon Gornall, Somali Piracy Threat Always on the Horizon, 16 December 2014, The National
4. US Government Accountability Office, Defense Acquisitions: Assessment of Selected Weapon Programs,  March 2013, pp. 109, 115, Available on-line: 
 About the Author
Griffin Cannon is a senior at the Vermont Commons School in South Burlington, Vermont. His interests include spending time with his younger siblings, the outdoors, tennis, and skiing. He finds military and political issues fascinating and spends time every day keeping up to date on the defense world. As a graduating senior he plans on attending university at the Naval Academy or on a NROTC scholarship. Griffin hopes to pursue a career in either engineering or defense policy after serving in the Navy. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Worth a Listen: CIMSEC's Unmanned Naval Vessel Podcast

seacontrolemblemThe Center for International Maritime Security's most recent "Sea Control" podcast features an interesting and wide-ranging discussion on future unmanned and optionally-manned naval systems.  Much of the discussion revolves around the challenges of operating large surface ships without manpower, to include some of the more mundane functions, such as maintenance.

Alex Clarke, of the Phoenix Think Tank, proposed the concept of an "unmanned wingman" for Offshore Patrol Vessels performing remote operations.  He also mentioned the possibility of USVs taking on the role of the T-AGOs towed array sonar operations for anti-submarine warfare. Essentially, this concept mirrors what DARPA's ACTUV program intends to do. 

Other topics of consideration are unmanned alternatives to aircraft carriers, the difficult question of whether destroying an unmanned vehicle is an act of war, and command and control schemes. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Short Range Wireless Power Transfer (WPT) for UAV/UAS Battery Charging

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER News.

by Professor David Jenn, NPS Electrical Engineering Faculty, jenn(at)

There are numerous advantages of wireless power transfer (WPT) for many remote energy source and battery charging applications. In a WPT system, power is transmitted wirelessly from a base station to a client. The concept was first demonstrated for vehicle propulsion in the mid 1960s. More recently, WPT has been used for charging wireless devices, and commercial WPT charging technologies have appeared on the market under the names Witricity and Energous.

Measurement setup used to obtain efficiency and coil installed in a UAV hull
(photo courtesy NPS).
In a typical WPT system, prime power is provided by the base station, converted to radio frequency, and then transferred through space to a receiving coil or antenna. On the client side the received power is filtered, transformed in voltage, and subsequently delivered to the battery or power plant.

Inductive systems use two coils with one located in the charging station and the second in the device. Energy is transferred by the magnetic fields linking the coils. At the receiving coil, circuits are required to rectify and condition the output voltage for charging the battery. Inductive systems generally operate at low frequencies (< 10 MHz). Efficiencies greater than 95% have been achieved, but only at very short distances (a maximum of several cm) and alignment of the coils is critical.

Radiative WPT systems use two antennas rather than coils, and the energy is transferred by a propagating wave. The receiving antenna has an integrated rectifier, and is called a rectenna. Radiative systems operate at higher frequencies than inductive systems (> 1 GHz), and suffer a (1/distance)2 propagation loss. High gain antennas can be used to increase the received power, but they become physically large. The use of antennas has advantages though. Solid state arrays allow full control of the antenna excitation, which permits scanning and focusing of the beam. This capability relaxes the alignment requirements between the two antennas. Radiative systems can be designed to operate at distances of tens of meters or more.

A disadvantage of radiative systems is that it they are more susceptible to environmental conditions. To minimize loss, a clear line-of-sight in air is desirable. Therefore, this approach cannot be used for
vehicles submerged in water or buried in wet ground. However it can be used for ground vehicles, air vehicles on the ground, or even warfighter packed equipment.

Other issues that must be considered when using electromagnetic energy are safety and interference. Because of the short ranges and relatively low power involved, safety should not be an issue and the interference introduced by a practical WPT system will be limited to same platform (self) interference.

In Phase I of the study (completed in FY14) both approaches were simulated using commercial software. For the inductive case, working at 100 kHz, efficiencies over 90% were achieved at short ranges (less than 30 mm). A frequency of 100 kHz was used to allow the system to operate in seawater without suffering decreased efficiency due to the water resistance. For the radiative approach, the transmission loss between antennas was less than 1 dB at ranges less than 3 m when near field focusing was employed. The results are important because they demonstrate that efficient transmission of energy can take place between the WPT ground station and a client for both approaches.

The next phase in the research is to demonstrate efficient rectifying and battery charging circuits. It includes the design of a practical interface between the coils, and optimization of the rectifying and charging circuit. The demonstration of an inductive system is planned in FY15.
Full Report available at