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2013: The Year in Sea Drones

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What was the most significant development in unmanned naval systems for 2013?  Blog readers weighed in on this question and more during our survey.
Winning by a landslide, with 71% of the responses, was the successful carrier catapult shots and "traps" (arrested landings) of Northrop Grumman's X-47B. In a distant second, with 19% of the vote, was the proliferation of sea-going rotary wing UAVs.
Related to #1, the U.S. Navy's ever-changing UCLASS RFP was the third most notable development as judged in our survey. According to our web stats, other popular stories this year include:
All things related to unmanned system carrying motherships.  Ranging in size and variety from amphibious assault ships, nuclear submarines, to patrol boats, and RHIBs, navies are focused on identifying the most efficient and effective platforms to host UAVs, UUVs, and USVs. A BQM-74E target drone's impact on the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville that occurred during combat syste…

Drones Get MAD

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No, despite hype to the contrary, drones aren't getting angry and taking over the world.  But if the U.S. Navy gets its way, a new generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles might be getting Magnetic Anomaly Detectors, or MAD.  The Navy has issued two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) solicitations related to the incorporation of MAD sensors in UAVs.
A MAD is a device normally found on anti-submarine warfare aircraft that detects changes in the earth's magnetic field caused by a large metal object (i.e., a submarine). MAD sensors can be found in the tail of the P3 or towed behind an aircraft, in the case of the Navy's SH-60B helicopters, and are used in the final stages of target prosecution to pinpoint the submarine before weapons release.  The first SBIR solicitation is entitled "Low Magnetic Signature Expendable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)" and the goal of developing a "low magnetic signature, expendable Tier 1 UAV …

Submarine-launched UAVs: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

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Last week, the U.S. Navy announced the launch of a fuel-cell powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, the XFC, from a submerged nuclear submarine. Interestingly, XFC is at least the fourth sub-launched UAS the Navy has demonstrated.  Previous efforts date back to 2005 and include the hand-launched Dragon Eye and FQM-151 and the sail-launched Buster.  More recently, the Navy first successfully launched a Switchblade from a submerged submarine in Exercise Trident Warrior 2010 using a successor to  Raytheon's Submarine Over the Horizon Organic Capabilities, or SOTHOC launch system.

Other efforts weren't so successful.  The German company Gabler designed the VOLANS (coVert OpticaL Airborne reconnaissance Naval adapted System), a mast-launcher concept which was not constructed. Even more interesting is Lockheed Skunkwork's ridiculously ambitious Cormorant UAV, which apparently never made it past the YouTube stage of development.

More successful however, has been the Tomahawk-land atta…

Non-traditional Drone Motherships - Cheaper & Better?

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Earlier this week, guest blogger Mark Tempest posted some interesting ideas on low cost alternatives to traditional combatants which could be configured to carry unmanned surface vehicles, playing on the idea that payload truly is more important than platform.  These concepts are unorthodox, though as Mark points out, not unprecedented.  In a time of shrinking budgets and smaller fleets, the navy should explore how to optimize various combinations of ships and the unmanned vehicles they will carry, with an eye towards both effectiveness and efficiency.  Mine counter-measures is an important, though often short-changed mission, with various trade-offs between payload and platform.

Between the Littoral Combat Ship "seaframe" and mission modules, the U.S. Navy has invested billions of dollars in R&D and acquisition money to develop (though still not fully) the capability to conduct off-board, unmanned mine counter-measures.  LCS will carry the Remote Minehunting System, a r…

Cheaper Corvettes: COOP and STUFT like that

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If the answer to the Navy’s future is robotics, then Admiral Greenert’s July 2012 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings piece, “Payloads Over Platforms, Charting a New Course” opens up a whole new world of possibilities for using existing small ship platforms as “trucks” to deliver large numbers of modern weapons platforms to areas of interest.

As former Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work emphasized during his recent appearance on MIDRATS,  the Littoral Combat Ship is such a truck–a vehicle for delivering unmanned weapons system.

This post is meant to take that concept and cheapen it.
What is a corvette? Something smaller than frigate but larger than a patrol boat, I guess. The LCS in either of its variants is large at about 380 feet in length and displacing 2800 tons. A Gearing-class destroyer from post WWII measured in 390 feet and 3400 tons.  The Perry-class frigates are over 440 feet and 4100 tons.

Seems we have a lot of size and space to play with.
It occurs to me that we need to t…

2013 Naval Drones Survey

What are the latest trends in unmanned systems?  What technologies show the most promise to enhance future naval operations?  Readers of this site represent naval and industry professionals, academics, and other interested parties from more than 160 countries. We're offering an anonymous survey to understand this wealth of knowledge contained in our readers' insights and experience.  The results will be discussed in future posts in this space.  Please take a few minutes to respond to the 8 easy questions.

Link for mobile sites: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RT5YKFB

*Note - you will not be emailed, phoned, nor otherwise accosted for responding.

Rand on USVs

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The U.S. Navy has experimented with Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) for several years now, but has not yet deployed any in operational roles.  At the direction of the Chief of Naval Operations, Assessment Division (OPNAV N81), the RAND Corp has released the definitive study on Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) for naval use.  The study analyzed the suitability of USVs for 62 different naval missions (yes, there are that many).  USVs were compared to other platforms, including manned, and unmanned (UUVs and UAVs).

According to the report, USVs are more suitable than other platforms in missions requiring longer endurance, higher power availability for payloads, and the ability to interface “cross domain” sensors and with other platforms above, on, and below the water.  The report also highlighted the favorability of this type of platform in dangerous anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environments, where they could collect intelligence, and conduct electronic warfare operations such as jammin…

New UUV Mothership Hits the Fleet: the Coastal Command Boat

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 The U.S. Navy recently introduced the new 65 foot Coastal Command Boat (65PB1101) into the fleet.  Among other maritime security missions, CCB will test new concepts in employing unmanned underwater vehicles.  The one-of-a-kind vessel was developed following a 2008 Congressional earmark for $5 million.  After a transit from its building location in Bremerton, the SAFE Boat-manufactured CCB arrived in  Coronado, California in August where it been assigned to Coastal Riverine Group 1 (CRG-1).  CCB is a predecessor of the Navy's upcoming 85-foot Mark VI patrol boats, six of which have been planned for delivery in FY13/14.
The boat has been configured to operate the MK 18 Mod 2 Kingfish UUV for mine counter-measures operations.  Two of the 800 pound, 12 inch diameter UUVs sit in cradles on the stern of the CCB and are launched with the boat's hydraulic crane.  The Navy is considering deploying the CCB to the Middle East for operational testing sometime in the next year.  Oper…

Unmanned Naval Helicopters Take-off in 2013

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The carrier take-off and arrested landings of the U.S. Navy's X-47B demonstrator have garnered significant press attention this year.  Less noticed however, is the rapid development of rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles in the world's navies.  Recent operational successes of Northrop Grumman's MQ-8B Fire Scout aboard U.S. Navy frigates have led to many countries recognizing the value of vertical take-off and landing UAVs for maritime use. 

International navies see the versatility and cost savings that unmanned rotary wing platforms can bring to maritime operations.  Like their manned counter-parts, these UAVs conduct a variety of missions including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; cargo resupply/vertical replenishment; and in some future conflict will perform armed interdiction at sea.  However, unlike the two or three hour endurance of manned helicopter missions, some of these UAVs can fly 12 or more hour sorties.  Other benefits include the ability for…

Robotics at Sea: Supply Bots

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Editor's Note: Operating a warship -- or any large vessel, for that matter -- is a very manpower intensive endeavor.  Although automation has improved engineering in particular, the basic functions of operating, maintaining, and cleaning a ship have remain relatively unchanged since steam replaced sail as a source of power.  Pile on training and war-fighting functions, and today's combatants require tireless efforts by their over-taxed crews, which have been reduced in the past decade for the sake of cost savings.   

The blog has discussed numerous air, surface, and undersea unmanned technologies that have begun to make their mark on naval operations.  The impact on robotics on naval technologies is not limited solely to vehicles. Here, LT Scott Cheney-Peters discusses a robotic technology that may assist future sailors with logistics management:

If you haven’t spent much time aboard a naval vessel, the Supply Department is the part of the ship charged with managing spare part…

Leading the Blind: Teaching UCAV to See

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By Lt Matt Hipple

In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock Holmes laments, “You [Watson] see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Such is the current lament of America’s fleet of UCAVs, UGV’s, and other assorted U_V’s: they have neither concept nor recognition of the world around them. To pass from remote drones living on the edges of combat to automated systems at the front, drones must cross the Rubicon of recognition.

To See
The UCAV is the best place to start, as the skies are the cleanest canvas upon which drones could cast their prying eyes. As with any surveillance system, the best ones are multi-faceted. Humans use their five senses and a good portion of deduction.  Touch is a bit too close for UCAV, smell and hearing would be both useless and uncomfortable at high speed, and taste would be awkward. Without that creative deductive spark, drones will need a bit more than a Mk 1 Eyeball. Along with radar, good examples for how a drone might literally “see” besides a ba…

Ships vs. UUVs for Mine Clearance - Not Mutually Exclusive

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In the July issue of Proceedings (membership required), Royal Navy Commander John Craig argues for the retention of the U.S. Navy's mine countermeasures fleet primarily because unmanned underwater vehicles cannot replace them.  CDR Craig certainly has the credentials to comment smartly on this subject, having recently commanded Britain's 2nd Mine Countermeasures Squadron (2MCM).

The U.S. Navy eventually plans to dispose of its MCM ships (the MHC class mine hunters were previously decommissioned in the 2000s) with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) embarked with unmanned MCM systems as a planned replacement.  Regardless of the wisdom of this decision, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) have been embraced by the U.S. and other modern navies, and are being acquired at a rapid pace.  The gradual shift towards unmanned MCM systems is likely a reflection of shrinking defense budgets, but there are probably some operational advantages to be realized as technology and testing advances.

Video Game AI and the Future UCAV Top Gun

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By Matt Hipple

Roombais useful because it can sweep up regular messes without constant intervention, not because it can exit and enter its docking station independently. Although the Navy’s new X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) has, by landing on a carrier, executed an astounding feat even for humans, this ability only means our weapons have matured past their typical one-way trips. The real challenge will be getting a UCAV to defend units while sweeping up the enemy without remote guidance(i.e. autonomously). The answer is as close as the games running on your Xbox console.


Player One: Insert Coin
Considering the challenge of how an air-to-air UCAV might be programmed, recall that multiple generations of America’s youth have already fought untold legions of advanced UCAV’s. Developers have created artificial “intelligences” designed to combat a human opponent in operational and tactical scenarios with imperfect information; video games have paved the way for unmanned tactical c…

Controlling Naval Drones from the Cockpit

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Naval Postgraduate School students continue to do interesting work in the field of unmanned aviation. LCDR Eric McMullen, USN, and MAJ Shane Grass, USA, conducted a research project entitled "Effects of UAV Supervisory Control on F-18 Formation Flight Performance in a Simulator Environment."

The increase in cockpit workload attributed to new technologies and the shift from two-seat to single seat naval aircraft is taxing human mental capacity.   The Navy envisions that some day swarms of unmanned aircraft will be controlled at least in part by onboard flight crew and the research was designed to gage the impacts of this idea on flight performance.

Data for the study was collected from 34 Navy and Marine aviators who flew three five-minute F-18 simulator sessions where their performance in formation flying was compared during two secondary distraction tasks. The "traditional" task was target persecution with a electro-optical Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) p…

Defeating IEDs with USVs

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This concept proposal explores a technology solution to the problem of risk to first responders when identifying, neutralizing, and exploiting “surface-floating” maritime improvised explosive devices (SF/MIEDs).

When considering the proliferation of technology for use against land-based improvised explosive devices (IEDs), it may be puzzling to many observers why remote IED Defeat (IEDD) technologies (particularly robots) have yet to fully cross over into the maritime domain.  Although some unmanned underwater vehicle programs designed for limpet mine-like object detection on ships are in development , much less attention has been given to countering SF/MIEDs. In general, the purpose of MIEDs is to destroy, incapacitate, harass, divert, or distract targets such as ships, maritime critical infrastructure and key resources (CI/KR), and personnel. MIEDs may also present obstacles (real or perceived) with the purpose of area denial or egress denial. As a subset of the MIED family, the “s…

Drones for Maritime Activism

The Blackfish has integrated the use of unmanned air vehicles in support of their marine wildlife protection operations.  Blackfish's UAS were provided by Laurens De Groot's organization ShadowView, who supplies UAVs to non-profits for conservation projects.  The group flew initial demonstration sorties with a quad-rotor over a harbor and is looking to improve their UAS capabilities to fly longer range missions over the open water in an effort to expose illegal driftnet fishing in the Mediterranean.


The Blackfish joins the ranks of a growing number of non-governmental organizations using UAVs for maritime surveillance operations including Sea Shepherd Conservation SocietyEarthrace Conservation, and Greenpeace.

Dronenet in Action

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See Part I on dronenets here.  History is full of instances where war and militaries drove innovations that bled into the commercial marketplace.  The information era has turned that trend on its head.  The "DomiCopter" below might be more publicity stunt than reality, but the operational concept is sound.


Unmanned K-Max helicopters are saving Marine lives every day in Afghanistan and reducing the cost of intra-theater lift.  Some day a similar dronenet will take over many of the vertical replenishment requirements for naval ships at sea, leaving manned rotary wing aircraft for higher value missions such as scouting and attack.

Assessing UAV Survivability

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An oft-cited draw-back of unmanned air systems is their vulnerability to a variety of threats including both physical, such as anti-aircraft fire, and electronic, including jamming.  Researchers and industry are beginning to more seriously examine these threats as the number of drones operating proliferates. How do UAVs stack up against these various threats, especially in the maritime environment?
On the physical side, depending on what altitude they are operating, maritime UAVs face similar threats to helicopters and patrol aircraft.  Small tactical UAS flying surveillance missions at relatively low altitudes over-land or water are vulnerable to the simplest anti-aircraft threat, small arms fire.  In 2011, a Fire Scout UAV operating from USS Halyburton (FFG 40) over Libya was shot down by some sort of ground fire.  While flying over-water, drones might face close-in-weapons systems ranging from 20-30 mm to larger naval guns in the 57mm to 155 mm range.  Recently, Naval Post Graduat…

IMCMEX 13 - New Drones, New Tactics

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Unmanned naval systems played a significant role during last year's International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX). This year, more than 40 nations will operate 18 Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) in the Persian Gulf during what has become arguably the world's premiere mine counter-measures demonstration.  IMCMEX 13 has also been expanded to include maritime infrastructure protection (MIP) and maritime security operations (MSO) mission sets.  The exercise is breaking new ground both in platforms and tactics.



As with MCMEX 12, USS Ponce will be a major focus area, demonstrating trials of various sorts of mother ship configurations to expedite the deployment of UUVs into suspected mine fields.  This experimentation offers a hedge to mitigate risk against the still yet to be operational Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) mine warfare mission package.  Conceivably, a well-deck equipped amphibious ship could launch MK 18 Mod 2 Kingfish UUVsat a higher rate (via RHIBs) surveying m…

X-47B Sea Trials - A BFD

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My twitter feed was abuzz today with statements lauding this morning's launch of the U.S. X-47B unmanned carrier air system from USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77):
"...another great first for naval aviation...History has just been made...Momento histórico...the Next Era of Naval Aviation...Launch Catapults Naval Aviation into the Future...New era in warfare...MOMENTOUS...Watershed...a pivotal milestone in naval aviation...game-changing technology," etc.

There is a bit of truth in all of these.  Though perhaps the event is best summarized in the words of Vice President Biden.


Saving Money with Common Control Systems

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In a previous post, we cited funding threats to U.S. Navy unmanned systems programs and specifically called out ONR for some questionable R&D efforts.  In an effort towards fairness, the below video explains how ONR is working with other partners on a Common Control System for unmanned vehicles which will provide joint interoperability and produce a significant return on investment.  CCS is a hardware-agnostic tool using Kutta Tech's Bi-Directional Remote Video Transceiver to not only view sensor feeds from UAVs, but to control the sensors themselves and reduce operator workload.

India Looks to Prevent Another Mumbai Attack With UAVs

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India's growing unmanned aerial vehicle fleet is being put through its paces in defending against a future Mumbai-style complex terrorist attack.  During a 48-hour long exercise, Gemini-2, UAVs from the Navy’s 342 Air Squadron cued patrol boats and coastal police to thwart mock terrorists attempting to infiltrate Southern India's shoreline from the sea.  The first iteration of Gemini was held in November 2012 and other multi-agency coastal security exercises ('Sagar Kavach') have been conducted frequently since the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on Mumbai in 2008.



India's ground-based tactical Searcher MK II and longer-ranged Heron UAVs are a component of a more comprehensive maritime observation network consisting of manned aircraft, cooperating fishermen, and coastal surveillance radars and cameras installed in 90 light houses along India's 7,500 km coastline.  India's army and air force are also acquiring some small tactical UAVs to support anti-terror survei…

Estimating Cost Savings for UCLASS

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The past few years has seen a mostly uninformed tit for tat in the media and blogosphere regarding the costs of operating unmanned vehicles, especially when it comes to the personnel involved in operating and supporting them.  Those favoring drones often overlook the back-end costs of analyzing large amounts of data gathered by persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.  Those in support of manned aircraft discount the ability of single operators to control one or more autonomous aircraft, the fact that training and proficiency requirements are much lower for drone operators than manned aviators, and often mistakenly compare cost platform for platform rather than total time on station, or "orbits."

As the U.S. Navy plans significant investments in programs such as the UCLASS aircraft, additional analysis will need to be undertaken in order to develop more accurate long term budgets for these systems.  Towards this end, Commander Gary Lazzaro, a stud…