Monday, July 13, 2015

NPS Faculty Battle Extreme Environments to Further AUV Research

by Kenneth A. Stewart, NPS
Naval Postgraduate School Research Associate Tad Masek, left, Research 
Associate Professor Douglas Horner, center, 
and 
Research 
Assistant 
Professor Noel Du Toit, right, 
are pictured 
on the frozen surface 
of 
Pavilion Lake, 
British Columbia with two 
 of the Autonomous Underwater 
Vehicles (AUV) that they are using to conduct 
experiments on
 AUV operation in extreme, under-ice environments. 

Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Research Associate Professor Douglas Horner and Research Assistant Professor Noel Du Toit recently returned from remote Pavilion Lake, British Columbia where they investigated Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) operations in extreme, under-ice environments.

“The Navy is very interested in our ability to work under the ice using autonomous vehicles,” said Horner. Pavilion Lake is located some 250 kilometers northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia. Its frozen-over waters became a natural laboratory in which Horner, Du Toit and a multi-disciplinary team of colleagues were able to test navigation algorithms developed at the NPS campus in Monterey, Calif. and beyond. 

 “The lake’s bathymetry is incredible. It varies from 60 to four me- ters depth in less than a 300 meter distance,” explained Horner. “It provided a unique opportunity for testing the AUV’s ability to collect sensor data while both avoiding potentially hazardous ob- stacles and building an accurate map.” Horner and Du Toit both teach at the NPS Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE). Horner is co-director at the university’s Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research (CAVR) and Du Toit has been participating for several years in NASA’s Extreme Environments Mission Operations (NEEMO) program. The researchers also partnered with NPS’ Consortium for Robotics and Unmanned Systems Education and Research, or CRUSER, which helped fund the Pavilion Lake experimentation.

While there are many facets to Horner and Du Toit’s combined experimentation efforts, at issue are three main capabilities – the development of navigational techniques that allow AUVs to travel without reliance on GPS; the development of adaptive controllers that will enable robust under-ice operations with changing vehicle configurations; and the development and testing of real-time surveying and 3D-mapping capabilities.

Horner and Du Toit also used their time at Pavilion Lake to gain experience conducting under-ice operations in preparation for further research at Lake Untersee, Antarctica later this year and in the Arctic next year. “We are trying to do this in increasingly aggressive environments. We started in Pavilion Lake without ice, and now we have conducted experiments beneath the ice. Next, we intend to conduct experiments in a more challenging lake environment in Antarctica and culminate with AUVs deployed beneath moving sea ice in the Arctic,” Horner explained.

According to Du Toit and Horner, under-ice research is increasingly important to the Navy due to the effects of melting polar ice and its implications on geopolitical and economic interests in the region. But before the Navy is able to fully realize the benefits of their work beneath the ice, they must first get the science right. To do that, Horner and Du Toit will have to contend with not only extreme temperatures, and changing currents, but with moving sea ice and the physical effects of varying sea ice densities and compositions.

“All of our sensor measurements have to be integrated in a manner that makes sense mathematically,” said Du Toit. “The information comes in from a number of distinct places and has to be combined in a way that captures the relative quality of the information.” One of the most important research outcomes that Horner and Du Toit hope to realize from their efforts is the ability to accurately and reliably navigate in a variety of challenging environments – from beneath the ice or in the cluttered littorals, the Navy has begun to navigate in these regions with greater frequency.

“Imagine the vehicle is moving around with a bubble of uncertainty around it. When GPS is available the bubble is small, but when it isn’t available or when we don’t want the vehicle to surface, the bubble can grow. The bigger the bubble, the less confident we are about its actual location,” explained Horner. “We are interested in how terrain and natural underwater features can help us to manage the bubble and keep it to a minimal size.” 

Using a process known as Terrain Aided Navigation (TAN), Horner and Du Toit are able to estimate their AUVs’ positions in relation to a map. “But when you use a map one assumes it is correct even though accurate, high resolution undersea maps are frequently not available,” said Horner. To overcome this challenge, Horner and Du Toit are developing techniques to build better maps with incomplete data. The methodology relies upon “optimal spatial estimation” to use available measurements to build maps and subsequently rely upon them to determine their AUV’s most likely position. But what happens in the absence of accurate maps and the only terrain feature detectable is the ice itself?

“The eventual goal is to turn this capability “upside-down” and to use sonar and complementary sensors on the underside of the ice at the polar caps to reduce AUV positional uncertainty,” said Horner. “Before, we were looking downward at the [ocean floor] topology to match geographical features to a map, but in the arctic we do not have that luxury.”

“Your navigational goal is going to determine how you are going to use the map,” explained Du Toit. For Du Toit, positional certainty is critical. He is focused upon creating high-fidelity 3D maps that can be used by robotic systems to not only maneuver under austere conditions, but to interact with the environment as well. Du Toit’s work at Pavilion Lake built upon experiments he conducted last year at Florida International University’s Aquarius Habitat. There, in collaboration with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Du Toit worked with the NEEMO program to investigate robot-assisted human exploration in challenging environments. He hopes that by enhancing AUV mapping and navigational capabilities, he will be able to improve diver safety by relegating dangerous tasks to AUVs altogether. “The next piece is our ability to interact with the environment, for example to pick up and retrieve things,” said Du Toit. Such a capability will provide novel utility to the Navy in support of undersea operations, but requires underlying capabilities such as accurate mapping and precise vehicle control.

But while the development of new navigational and control technologies is the primary focus of Horner and Du Toit’s work, the use of AUV’s in these austere environments is also presenting them, and a group of astro and marine biologists from NASA Ames Research Center with the opportunity to observe some of the earliest known organisms in existence today. “Pavilion Lake is home to a large population of freshwater microbialite structures that have been studied by NASA and CSA scientists,” said Du Toit.

Similar colonies of microbials are known to exist beneath the Antarctic ice covering lake Untersee. “The Antarctic microbial colonies are unique and have been isolated from the rest of the earth’s atmosphere since the last ice age,” explained Du Toit. Fossils with similar structure point to the existence of microbials as early as 3.45 billion years ago in what was the Earth’s earliest biosphere. According to Du Toit, these Antarctic microbial colonies – which only receive sunlight a few months out of the year in a lake permanently covered with three meters of ice – help astrobiologists to identify the conditions under which life may exist elsewhere in the solar system, perhaps even within the enormous salt-water sea recently discovered by NASA beneath the Jovian moon, Ganymede. 

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Inspector Gadgets: Drones in the Hangar

Checking an aircraft for damage can be arduous and meticulous work,  but last week’s issue of The Economist highlights an experimental commercial approach. In simple terms, the Remote Intelligent Survey Equipment for Radiation (RISER) drone is a quadcopter with LIDAR and forms the basis for a system to use lasers to automatically detect damage to airliners.
The obvious naval application for inspector drones would be for ground-, carrier, and surface vessel-based fixed-wing and helicopter units, although the configurations for each aircraft type and location might make some more practical than others. For example it probably makes more sense to consolidate expertise in inspector drones at regional maintenance and readiness centers than to try to outfit a unit in the small helicopter hangar of every destroyer. But there’s always something to be said for an operational capability.
While The Economist notes that the drones are allowed at Luton airport, UK, to “operate only inside hangars, and only when the doors are shut,” similar systems could be used during periods of extended surface ship and submarine maintenance, particularly while in dry dock to check for damage and wear and tear to those vessels’ hulls and systems.
We’ve speculated previously at CIMSEC on the utility of LIDAR-equipped shipboard robots and autonomous systems to engage in damage control, but external hull and airframe inspection drones add a wrinkle and join an ever-growing list of potential (and actualized) uses for drones.
Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and founder and Chairman of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, a member of theTruman National Security Project, and a CNAS Next-Generation National Security Fellow. Reprinted with permission from CIMSEC.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Airborne Over The Horizon Targeting Options to Enable Distributed Lethality

This article was submitted by guest author Michael Glynn for CIMSEC’s Distributed Lethality week.  Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.
The Navy’s surface warfare community is committed to remedying its lack of anti-surface warfare (ASuW) punch with Distributed Lethality. “If it floats, it fights,” is the rallying cry.[1] Dispersed forces operating together pose challenges for an adversary, but also create targeting difficulties we must solve.
The detection range of shipboard sensors is limited by their height above the waterline and the curvature of the earth. Since it appears doubtful leaders would call on a ship to steam into visual range of adversaries, airborne assets are most likely to provide over the horizon (OTH) targeting.
In a January 2015 article in Proceedings, Vice Admiral Rowden, Rear Admiral Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Fanta reference “persistent organic” air assets as key enablers of Distributed Lethality.[2] While a completely organic targeting solution offers opportunities in some scenarios, it has limits in high-end contingencies. In empowering the surface force, let us not ignore inorganic air assets. Distributed Lethality is far more effective with them.
TASM: A Cautionary Tale
During a January 2015 test, a Tomahawk Block IV test missile received in-flight updates from an aircraft and impacted its target, a mock cargo ship near the Channel Islands of California.[3] “This is potentially a game changing capability for not a lot of cost,” said Deputy Secretary of defense Bob Work. “It’s a 1000 mile anti-ship cruise missile.”[4]
But this test did not solve the fleet’s ASuW problem. Nor was it the first time the service had used Tomahawk in an anti-shipping role. To understand the difficulty of OTH targeting, we have to examine the final days of the Cold War.
In the late 1980’s, various ships and submarines carried the radar guided Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile, or TASM. The TASM boasted a range of over 200 nm. But because TASM was subsonic, it took as long as 30 minutes to reach its target. In this time, a fast warship could steam as far as 15 miles from its initial location. Additionally, neutral shipping could inadvertently become the target of the seeker if the enemy vessel was not the closest to the missile when the radar activated.
Therefore, TASM could only reliably be used when there was no neutral shipping around, or in a massive conflict where collateral damage considerations were minimal. The Navy sought to remedy this by developing OTH targeting systems known as Outlaw Hunter and Outlaw Viking on the P-3 and S-3 aircraft. But with the demise of the Soviet Union, massive defense cuts and the evaporation of any blue water surface threat led to the retirement of TASM.
OTH targeting is not a new problem. To solve it, airborne platforms are critical. Let’s examine the organic and inorganic assets that can fill these roles. We will then discuss how inorganic assets offer the most promise.
RQ-21
Organic Assets: Benefits and Limitations
The surface force is equipped with rotary and fixed wing assets to enable OTH targeting. From a sensors standpoint, the MH-60R is most capable. Its inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) can identify ships from long range, but it is limited in altitude and radar horizon. MQ-8 UAV’s offer increased endurance over manned assets. Their maximum altitudes are higher, but still constrain sensor range. The RQ-21 fixed wing UAV rounds out this group. It has solid endurance, but very limited speed.
The limited speed and altitude capabilities of these aircraft mean that the area they can search is small. Also, they must operate well within the weapons engagement zone of their targets to identify their prey. If these sensors platforms are radiating, a capable adversary will hunt them down or lure them into missile traps and destroy them in an effort to deny our forces a clear targeting picture.
Large Fixed Wing Assets: Increased Capability
While not organic to a surface action group, fixed wing aircraft bring speed, altitude, and persistence to the fight. P-8 and P-3 patrol aircraft offer standoff targeting and C5I capabilities. So too do the MQ-4 UAV and the E-8 JSTARS aircraft.
The carrier air wing brings blended detection and OTH targeting capabilities. The E-2 lacks ISAR identification capability, but does boast a passive electronic warfare (EW) suite and the ability to coordinate with the powerful EW system onboard EA-18G aircraft.  Additionally, the latest E-2 model can pass targeting quality data to surface ships to allow them to engage from the aircraft’s track, significantly increasing the ship’s effective missile envelope.
These platforms are expensive and limited in number, but their altitude capability and resulting sensor range allows them to standoff further from the enemy, radiating at will. Additionally, their high dash speed allows them to better escape targeting by enemy fighter aircraft. Their speed, persistence, sensor coverage, and survivability make them logical targeting platforms. They are far more capable and enable better effects than shipboard rotary assets and UAV’s.
Stand-in Stealthy Aircraft: The Ultimate Targeting Asset
The ultimate platform to provide targeting updates to long-range ASCM’s would be a stealthy UAV similar to the RQ-170.[5] Such an aircraft could receive cueing from other platforms, an onboard EW suite, or its own low probability of intercept (LPI) radar.[6] Able to stand in, it could provide visual identification, satisfying rules of engagement. It could provide target updates via a LPI datalink to inbound weapons. These technologies have their roots in the “Assault Breaker” initiative that led to the creation of the Tacit Blue test aircraft and the rise of modern stealth technology.[7],[8] Similar radars, datalinks, and low observable platforms have been proven and are flying today in various forms.[9]
Air Force Tacit Blue Demonstrator
Cost of a new platform is high, but their ability to get close and persist while unobserved is very useful and provides high confidence visual identification to commanders. Their survivability removes the need to provide airborne early warning (AEW) and high value airborne asset protection. Their stealth frees AEW aircraft and fighters to focus their energies elsewhere.
Conclusion
The concept of Distributed Lethality offers promise, but will be limited if its scope is confined to only utilizing capabilities resident in the surface fleet. It is best to pursue organic capabilities while also integrating inorganic assets when planning how the fleet will fight the conflicts of tomorrow. Let us pursue solutions that incorporate forces from many communities to best meet future warfare challenges.
Lieutenant Glynn is a Naval Aviator and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He most recently served as a P-8 instructor pilot and mission commander with Patrol Squadron (VP) 16. He currently flies the T-45 with Training Squadron (VT) 21. He is a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.  
 [1] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “’If it Floats, it Fights’: Navy Seeks ‘Distributed Lethality’,” Breaking Defense, January 14, 2015, http://breakingdefense.com/2015/01/if-it-floats-it-fights-navy-seeks-distributed-lethality/.
[2] Thomas Rowden, Peter Gumataotao, Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” Proceedings Magazine, January 2015, Vol. 141, http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality.
[3] “Tomahawk Hits Moving Target at Sea,” Raytheon Company, February 10, 2015, http://www.raytheon.com/news/feature/tomahawk_moving_target_sea.html.
[4] Sam LaGrone, “WEST: Bob Work Calls Navy’s Anti-Surface Tomahawk Test ‘Game Changing’,” USNI News, February 10, 2015, http://news.usni.org/2015/02/10/west-bob-work-calls-navys-anti-surface-tomahawk-test-game-changing.
[5] “RQ-170,” U.S. Air Force Fact File, December 10, 2009, http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/FactSheets/Display/tabid/224/Article/104547/rq-170-sentinel.aspx.
[6] Aytug Denk, “Detecting and Jamming Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) Radars,” Naval Post Graduate School, September 2006, http://dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a456960.pdf.
[7] Robert Tomes, “The Cold War Offset Strategy: Assault Breaker and the Beginning of the RSTA Revolution,” War on the Rocks, November 20, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/11/the-cold-war-offset-strategy-assault-breaker-and-the-beginning-of-the-rsta-revolution/.
[8] “Northrop Tacit Blue,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, March 9, 2015, http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=353.
[9] Kelley Sayler, “Talk Stealthy to Me,” War on the Rocks, December 4, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/12/talk-stealthy-to-me/.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Distributed Endurance: Logistics and Distributed Lethality

The following is a submission by guest author Chris O’Connor for CIMSEC’s Distributed Lethality week, reprinted with permission of the Center for International Maritime Security.
Distributed lethality is a concept that harkens back to the glory days of the US Navy in the age of sail: small groups of ships with operational autonomy fighting the enemy with their organic firepower and capabilities. Operational autonomy was the default state for ships  until Marconi’s radio set--the lack of instantaneous communication meant that commanders had to make decisions by themselves. Concerning distributed lethality, the lack of communications is imposed upon our ships by enemy communications denial in an A2/AD environment. The parallel does not work in the logistics domain as well- warships then had to fend for themselves logistically, while today, we will have to force a new mode of supply on our ships in order for them to operate independently.
There are some lessons we can learn from how we supported our ships in the past, but there is a big difference in the sustainment modality of the 64-gun USS Bonhomme Richard of Revolutionary War legend and the modern namesake of her captain USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53).
First of all, those ships of sail operated with what is now called an “expeditionary mindset.” They operated with austerity, for threplenishment opportunities were few and far between. Most of our surface combatants are replenished from Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships with such frequency that fresh fruits and vegetables are a part of the staple on Carrier Strike Group (CSG) deployers and hard pack ice cream is not uncommon. Life on-board the hunter killer Surface Action Groups (SAGs) will be less comfortable, but it does not have to regress to the days of hard tack and picked herring. Instead, austere life on a modern surface ship life will be closer to that of how submariners live on nuclear attack subs. More canned and from scratch food could be served and valuable storeroom space that is now used for ship’s store items and soda vending could further extend the endurance of a vessel as food storage. Our refrigeration units could be converted to only carry frozen items, yet another adaptation for better food autonomy that sacrifices the comfort of salads and perishable fruit for several more days between replenishment hits.
Ships in the age of sail had carpenters in their crew and bosun’s mates that could repair a large part of what we would call ‘Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical’ systems on today’s warships, using materials that could be collected from almost any port- or from captured enemy ships, for that matter. Shot out rudders, rigging, sails- the prime movers of a ship of the day- could be at least “jury rigged” with organic capabilities on-board. The bridge that modern warships need to come even close to this capability is a suite of additive manufacturing systems that can build replacement parts of many shapes and materials, to include systems that can repair parts by building directly on their surfaces with an additive manufacturing (AM) system. Sailors will need to be able to repair their own systems with these new technologies, introducing an organizational level repair suite that can fix far more than the currently installed machine shops. In the near term, AM will not be the solution to all of our shipboard repair problems, especially on space constrained surface combatants. The state of the technology means that our ships will still depend on logistics assets for at least some of their repair parts, which will tend towards the complex in design, and will be most likely vital for the operation of our critical systems.
The delivery of high priority parts to ships at sea necessitates a solution that departs from our historical parallels. If we are to provide logistical supports to distributed assets in a emission-restricted or denied environment, a family of autonomous replenishment assets needs to be developed. In the “distributed lethality” environment, large, exquisite MH-60 helicopters should not be used to deliver small packages of critical parts (a situation that the author has personally experienced a number of times). These multi-mission aircraft are better utilized prosecuting targets, providing ISR, and acting as communications relays. The crews of the helicopters should also not be put to risk delivering parts where detection in contested airspace would have a fatal outcome. Vertical take-off and landing UAVs (VTUAV) lend themselves perfectly to this mission, but there is not currently a platform in the Navy that is suited for this mission.
The Navy needs to fill this capability gap by changing how VTUAVs are operated from ships and advancing existing technologies to a level that allows for a mature autonomous capability. We have to operate these systems without flight following; controlled assets are no use to us an environment where communications are not guaranteed. To enable this, such a robotic replenishment asset would have to have “sense and avoid” systems so that they do not collide with other aircraft, ships, or oil platforms as they fly point to point from ship to ship or ship to shore. In addition, these aircraft will have systems that use a combination of EO/IR, LIDAR, and INS to first get in the vicinity of the receiving ship and then land on it without any outside input or control. This is an important difference from our current CONOPs, for there is no UAV that can land on any ship in our inventory by itself; they all require UCARs (UAV Common Automatic Recovery System), SPN radars, or man-in-the-loop input. To be truly useful, logistics missions should be able to be flown to and from any surface ship, as they are with manned helicopters. The all of the above technologies needed for an autonomous logistics UAV currently exist but have not been combined into one dedicated platform. When proven, a family of systems ranging from Fire Scout to optionally manned H-60s to hybrid airships could be employed, stretching a flexible sustainment chain that can leapfrog from asset to asset out to our hunter killer SAGs.
VTUAVs like this CybAero design could enable robotic replenishment
VTUAVs like this CybAero APID 160 could
enable robotic replenishment
Austerity, additive manufacturing, and robotic replenishment can only take sustainment endurance so far without dealing with the five hundred pound gorilla of energy supply. At sea fuel replenishment will be much rarer if combatant ships operate in environments that make MSC ship operations difficult due to distance or enemy threats. In addition, these oilers might be occupied in other future missions as missile shooters with bolt-on launchers or adaptive force package elements. To start, a greater tolerance for lower levels of shipboard fuel bunkerage needs to be embraced operationally. Fuel cells and batteries need to be added to existing platforms to share the electrical generation burden from the gas turbine generators, so more fuel can be conserved for ship propulsion. The end solution to this problem could be much more radical and needs to be examined in great depth. Unmanned fuel tugs in concert with underwater fuel stations could service our ships, but the full implications of using such systems are far from certain.
“Distributed Lethality” will prove a sea change to how naval forces employ surface assets with significant implications for tactics, command and control methods, and platform employment means. In order for it all to work, we need to be as innovative with our sustainment methods we are in all the other enabling warfare disciplines. The sooner we get started, the more seamless the final package will be.
Chris O’Connor is a supply corps officer in the United States Navy and is a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can Robots Reduce Risk for Naval Boarding Operations?

Intercepting and boarding ships for inspection is one of the most common naval missions. These operations are called VBSS, or Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure in naval parlance, and used to enforce sanctions, disrupt illicit smuggling, and impose blockades in wartime.  In the United States, all of the maritime services - Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard - have some form of VBSS teams. VBSS operations range from routine health and safety inspections to high freeboard opposed boardings, the latter category generally conducted by Naval Special Warfare forces.  In any event, even routine vessel inspections can be dangerous. Robotics technology shows potential to mitigate some of the dangers of VBSS.

One of the riskiest aspects of any boarding operation is simply getting onto the ship.  A vessel's freeboard is the distance from the water up to the main deck level, which is where most teams will embark. On some ships or smaller indigenous craft such as dhows, a boarding team can simply climb onto the deck of the ship from whatever boat it is using.  Higher freeboard ships require VBSS team members, sometimes heavily laden with breaching gear and weapons, to climb a rope or caving ladder.  In a compliant boarding situation, the ladder might be emplaced by the ship's crew. In a non-compliant boarding, the VBSS team will need to use a grapple or a hook to get the ladder attached. At least one company is working on a way to more easily and accurately emplace the a climbing ladder.

The prototype robotic climber, built by a team from Helical Robotics and Matbock, uses magnets to adhere to a ship's hull.  The VBSS team controls the robot to attach a shepherd hook at an appropriate strong point which can be connected to a ladder to allow the team to safely board the ship.  A surveillance system provided by Kopis Mobile supplies real time streaming video to alert the team of any impending dangers at the top of the ladder.

VBSS team with Stingray (U.S. Navy photo)
Once the team is embarked they must move from compartment to compartment, searching the ship for contraband while dealing with any potential unfriendly crew. Both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have tested MacroUSA's Stingray Nano Unmanned Ground Vehicle (NUGV) as a tool to provide better situational awareness to boarding teams.  Stingray was originally funded in 2011 by Office of the Secretary of Defense Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise. The tiny tracked robot can be thrown onto the ship or down ladder wells by teams so that they can view hazards prior to entering the space. Stingray floats (it's waterproof) and can survive a 5 meter drop onto a steel deck, enabling it to handle the harsh environments encountered by VBSS teams.

Boardings are a dirty, dangerous operation, but these kinds of tactical robots will some day make them a bit safer for VBSS teams.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Robo-Ethics: Exploring Ethics of Unmanned Combat Systems

by Kenneth Stewart, NPS, kastewar(at) nps.edu 

Students and faculty from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) recently came together with teams of junior officers from U.S. Navy Third Fleet to discuss the ethics of unmanned systems for the 2015 iteration of the Robo-Ethics Continuing Education Series. This year’s event was led via video teleconference by NPS Associate Professor Ray Buettner, April 14.

“We are interested in exploring the ethical boundaries of robotic systems … preparing tools to figure out what the future will be like,” said Buettner.

But as student and faculty researchers wade into the at-times turbulent waters of unmanned systems, they are also exploring the many ethical considerations that autonomous combat systems present. “Should a machine be able to decide to kill, and if so, what does ‘decide’ mean?” Buettner asked assembled students and others joining via video teleconference from USNA and elsewhere. “The key concept to consider may be, ‘where is the human relative to the selection of the target and the decision to engage,’” said Buettner. “Do we want discrimination authority granted to the human loop?”

Another area of concern being debated is the question of punishment and accountability. Researchers, ethicists and policy makers are asking questions like, ‘Who do we hold accountable when a lethal autonomous system engages the wrong target?’

While it may seem counterintuitive to debate whether or not a human should be “in the decision loop,” Buettner points to serious debates among ethicists as to whether or not humans or machines are more likely to make errors that cost human life.

Coincidentally, while Buettner and his group debated the ethics of unmanned systems, the United Nation’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) was meeting in Geneva to debate a proposed ban and moratorium on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).

Buettner believes that there is currently no need for a prohibition against lethal autonomous systems, noting that current law already adequately provides necessary safeguards in this area. He is referring in part to Directive 3000.09, which the DOD published in 2012 to provide guidance on the development of autonomous systems. The directive places a series of regulatory safeguards on autonomous systems development while simultaneously encouraging innovative thinking and development in the autonomous systems arena.

“So far, no country has declared an intent to deploy a totally autonomous lethal system that decides who to kill and when,” Buettner noted. “Almost all fully autonomous systems are defensive.”

Buettner also noted NPS Professor Wayne Hughes’ views on the rapidly changing nature of autonomous systems. “The fundamental error in a debate over robotic development is to think that we have choice,” quoted Buettner. “This world is coming, rapidly coming.

“We can say whatever we want, but our opponents are going to take advantage of these attributes,” he continued. “That world is likely to be sprung upon us if we don’t prepare ourselves.”

NPS Assistant Professor Timothy Chung has long recognized the utility of research in this area. He is a pioneer in the area of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) swarms. “How do we take evolutionary changes in UAVs and use them to achieve revolutionary effects?” asked Chung.

In addition to exploring the ethics of unmanned combat systems, Buettner and Chung showcased ongoing CRUSER initiatives, many of which were born of student research. Current projects include the use of QR Codes in network-deprived environments and the feasibility of wireless underwater computer networks.

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Navy's Planned Patrol Boat Fleet Will Distribute More Mine Clearance Capability

Navy Minesweeping Boats (MSBs) cleared mines
and fought their way through Vietnamese waters.
Sea mines are simple, affordable, and prolific, yet one of the most lethal weapons of naval warfare in the past 50 years.  Countering this threat remains a significant challenge for even the most advanced navies. The eleven remaining Avenger class Mine Counter Measures ships in the U.S. Navy's fleet are divided between two forward deployed home ports, Bahrain, and Sasebo, Japan.  These single purpose ships will be gradually phased out in favor of new unmanned, off-board mine clearance technology embarked on a variety of platforms, such as the Littoral Combat Ship.  

The Navy is also planning for smaller craft, such as the MK VI patrol boat to carry Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) for mine clearance.  During the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Navy utilized small UUVs launched from the shore and inflatable zodiacs to find mines in Iraq's rivers. More recently, international navies have experimented with the concept of launching UUVs from rigid hull inflatable boats in Middle East waters during a series of mine warfare exercises. Additionally, a recent study by Lieutenant Andrew Thompson at the Naval Postgraduate school demonstrated that a variety of UUVs could prove successful in a large scale mine-clearance effort. Thompson's computer modeling concluded that factors such as UUV altitude, track spacing, number of passes, resupply, and search speed influenced the overall success and mission completion time of unmanned mine-hunting.

Though the use of unmanned vehicles aboard boats for mine clearance is a relatively new concept, fiberglass-hulled mine-sweeping boats (MSBs) served during the Vietnam War and even smaller wooden hulled boats, such as the 36' mine-sweeping launches (MSLs) served in World War II and Korea. Earlier mine-clearance boats focused on neutralizing mines in inshore waters with manual or acoustic sweeping gear.  New MCM boats with UUVs could conceivably conduct both shallow and deep-water mine-hunting.   

In support of this new distributed mine-clearance capability, the Naval Sea System Command (NAVSEA) Support Ships, Boats, and Craft Program Office (PMS 325) recently issued a request for information to industry to solicit assistance with requirements definition and procurement strategy in order to replace its large fleet of force protection boats currently serving with Naval Expeditionary Combat Command's Coastal Riverine Force.  Up to 100 of the 40 foot long boats, currently designated "PB-X," will be procured. 
ARABIAN GULF (May 2, 2015) Sailors assigned to Commander, Task Group 
(CTG) 56.1 unload a UUV from a rigid-hull inflatable boat during mine countermeasures training operations aboard the Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication
Specialist 1st Class Joshua Bryce Bruns/Released)

In addition to protecting harbors and inshore waters, the patrol boats will apparently serve in an a mine hunting capacity. According to the RFI, "the craft should be capable of launching, operating and recovering unmanned systems such as a MK18 Mine Countermeasures Underwater Vehicle System Mod MK 18 Mod 2." This UUV is based on the commercial Remus 600 UUV, commonly referred to as the Kingfish, and capable of operations at up to 600 meters in water depth.  

H/T Lee