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2014: The Year in Naval Drones

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It's time for our annual wrap-up of the stories on unmanned naval systems that most resonated on this site, social media feeds, and the public writ large.  Here are the top naval drone stories of the year:

The introduction of UAVs for maritime missions by non-state actors, specifically migrant rescue and anti-piracy, became reality.


The Royal Navy established a UAV Squadron to intitutionalize its ScanEagle operations.

Despite continued operational testing with the X-47B prototype, politics and indecision created further delays with the U.S. Navy's UCLASS RFP (still not released by the way).

Unmanned systems were key in the Malaysian Airlines Flight #370 Search.


The MQ-8C Fire Scout made significant strides towards its first operational deployment.

The U.S. Navy's Swarming USV program, really a plug and play unmanned craft system, garnered significant interest.


Interestingly, the story that seemed to pick up the most momentum in non-military circles was the Navy's Ghostsw…

Chief of Naval Operations Continues Focus on Unmanned Systems

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Since he assumed office in 2011, the development of unmanned systems payloads has been a priority during the tenure of U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathon Greenert.  His recent Position Report provides updates to several programs discussed in his original Navigation Plan.

Highlights related to unmanned systems include:

Undersea Warfare
"In the fall of 2014, our large displacement unmanned undersea vehicle (LDUUV) program reached
its first acquisition gate, Milestone A, which initiated technology development."

Unmanned Air Systems
"We continued testing the X-47B Unmanned Carrier Aircraft System Demonstrator, and for the first time, we executed simultaneous flight operations with manned and unmanned aircraft in the carrier
environment." Interesting, there is no mention of the oft-delayed UCLASS program request for proposal.

 "MQ-8B Fire Scout completed its 10th deployment aboard FFGs. Nineteen larger and longer endurance MQ-8C Fire Scout vehicles are …

Minehunting Robots in the Middle East: IMCMEX 2014

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This year's United States FIFTH Fleet's International Mine Countermeasures Exercise is well underway in Middle East waters, running until 13 November.  This third iteration of the exercise will be the largest ever, with 6,500 sailors from 44 nations and 38 ships participating.  As with past exercises, unmanned undersea vehicle detachments from several countries will show off their latest hardware in a realistic operating environment.  A total of 19 UUVs will take part in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the northern Red Sea.  On the U.S. side, a focus will be placed on overcoming unmanned mine-countermeasures challenges including the transfer of sensor data at sea, reducing unmanned mission duration, and enhancing trust in autonomy.

One of the new unmanned technologies to be demonstrated during the exercise is Northrop Grumman's Mine-Hunting Unit (MHU) .  The MHU unmanned surface vehicle tested its ability to deploy, tow, and retrieve the AQS-24A Mine …

Private Security Drones for Anti-piracy Ops

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We've talked about privately-funded drones for maritime eco-activism and  humanitarian operations, so it's not surprising to see another naval mission where unmanned air vehicles have bled into the private sector.  Now, at least one private security company has offered UAV services as an anti-piracy solution.

Commercial shipping companies embraced private security as a means for protecting their ships after piracy in the Indian Ocean expanded significantly in the late 2000's, putting crews at risk and costing shippers billions in dollars in increased insurance premiums.

Incidents of Somali piracy have been virtually non-existent since 2012, primarily due to the hardening of commercial shipping targets by embarked security teams. Other counter-measures, such as fire hoses, razor wire, and hardened crew citadels were too easily defeated by pirates, but to date, no ship with an armed security team has been successfully hijacked. UAVs make a lot of sense to enhance the effect…

Groping in the Dark - Unmanned Underwater Navigation

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One of the more pressing technical challenges with today's unmanned underwater vehicles is maintaining an accurate navigational position.  Because GPS signals will not penetrate the water's surface, UUVs typically rely on inertial navigation systems and periodic trips to the surface to gain an accurate satellite fix.
Bathymetric navigation, or finding one's ways through the contours of the sea floor, has been a tool used by mariners - both surface and subsurface - since the advent of sonar.  But accuracy was hampered due to inaccurate underwater charts and the processing limitations.

Advances in sensors and computing may change these dynamics as explored in Ensign Jacob T. Juriga's recent Naval Postgraduate School Thesis. Juriga's research
focused on terrain aided navigation (TAN) through a series of autonomous vehicle trials near the Aquarius Underwater Research Station located in Islamorada, Florida.  There, using two REMUS 100 AUVs and a SeaBotix vLBV300 Tethe…

The Navy's Swarming Robot Boats: Sorting Through the Hype

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By now, most readers are familiar with the U.S. Navy's new swarming drone experiment using the CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing)  system for automating small surface craft. The hype surrounding this development is significant, and some of it is rightfully deserved. Automated boats will find a place in future naval operations, but their capabilities and limitations must be more fully understood before that happens. 


Capabilities
The primary benefits of autonomous unmanned vessels are longer endurance than manned patrol boats, and of course, a reduction in risk to human sailors.  Naval budgeteers consistently lament the cost of personnel, so ostensibly, automated boats will be less expensive than training and maintaining human crews.  On the other hand, the Navy's force protection boat crews, most of them resident in the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command are a trivial component of the overall budget, and many of them are part time reservists, …

On Defending Ships With Counter-Measure Drones

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Lieutenant Matt Hipple, United States Navy has begun a full court press to use unmanned systems as a form of defense against anti-ship missiles.  Here in Proceedings, he discusses the concept of unmanned aerial vehicles as a decoy to draw fire away from naval vessels.
Matt sees these systems as a viable alternatives for shipboard defense to those currently in use, to include missiles, close-in-weapon gun systems, active electronic jamming, and passive distraction measures such as chaff. Here, he presents his case to Athena East,



When considering the ever-increasing numbers of sea and shore-based anti-ship missiles versus a smaller inventory of expensive defensive Standard missiles, the concept sounds reasonable.  The idea of aircraft as defensive ship decoys certainly isn't new.  In the Falklands conflict, Prince Andrew flew his helicopter in this manner to defend against Argentina's Exocet missiles.  "The helicopter is supposed to hover near the rear of the aircraft car…

NGO Uses Drones for Maritime Rescue

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We've written about the use unmanned air vehicles by maritime conservation organizations.  We've also highlighted the use of drones by European navies to support naval forces in interdicting the stream of refugees moving across the Mediterranean from North Africa.  In a predictable evolution of this trend, the non-profit Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) group has flown its first unmanned aircraft maritime patrols 30 nautical miles Southeast of Lampedusa, Italy from the motor vessel Phoenix. The two S-100 UAVs embarked on Phoenix and operated by Schiebel technicians will be able to locate and assess migrants in distress. According to MOAS co-founder Chris Catrambone, the drones will act as a "force multiplier" during their 21 day mission to assist navies in rescuing vessels along the most traversed migrant route.


Paul Scharre on Robot Swarms

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On June 11, at the eighth annual Center for New American Security’s National Security Conference, Paul Scharre, Fellow and Project Director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative discussed the future of robotics in warfare to include the use of unmanned swarms, which have been discussed extensively here.  The video (below) is thought-provoking, and worth watching in its entirety, but we've provided the highlights, especially as they relate to naval systems.
He describes several naval scenarios, including the use of unmanned surface vehicles to disrupt small boat swarm attacks on larger combatants and UAV counter-swarms. He also proposes that unmanned missile barges could work in tandem with the U.S. Navy's fleet of guided missile destroyers are limited in magazine capacity for missile defense.
In the undersea realm, Scharre alludes to DARPA's Hydra project, in which unmanned vehicles would sit dormant on the sea floor until required to awaken for their missions.  Also of note, is…

Autonomous Submarine Drones: Cheap, Endless Patrolling

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The US Navy recently announced that it will make more use of submarine drones, contracting with marine technology developer Teledyne Benthos to re-purpose the Slocum Glider as an instrument used for military activity. The contract is worth $203.7M. If you haven’t heard of it yet, here is what the Slocum Glider is: a 5 foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle capable of moving to specific locations and descending to depths of 4,000 feet. It is driven by variable buoyancy, and it can move both horizontally and vertically. The Slocum Glider can be programmed to patrol for weeks at a time, collecting data on its environment, surfacing to transmit to shore while downloading new instructions at regular intervals. Compared to traditional methods, the drones have a relative small cost: the need for personnel and infrastructure is reduced to its minimum and the vehicle is able to work around the clock and around the calendar. It works very well: in November 2012, an autonomous glider set a Guin…

The Most Realistic Fish-bot You've Ever Seen - and What it Could Mean for Naval Warfare

Bio-inspired maritime robotics is an emerging field gaining significant traction. Two examples the U.S. Navy has funded include Boston Engineering's Bioswimmer, and the odd robotic jellyfish, Cyro.  Both of these projects look clumsy compared to a robotic fish recently developed by a consortium of Polish researchers from the Technical University of Krakow, the marine technology firm  FORKOS, and the Polish Naval Academy.  The group's CyberRyba ("Cyber-fish") autonomous underwater vehicle can move along a preset route, but will eventually be able to autonomously avoid obstacles and log data from a sonar or video camera. The carp-like CyberRyba's uncanny realistic movement is aided by an articulating body and tail as well as independently moving pectoral fins allowing it to hover in place.

The ultimate goal of the research is to support the European Defence Agency's "Swarm of Biomimetic Underwater Vehicles for Underwater ISR" (SABUVIS) program beginn…

OPVs and Drones: An Affordable Match

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Unmanned systems are finding use on a larger variety of naval vessels, including those normally too small to operate helicopters.  Navies and coast guards operating Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) in particular, are finding that unmanned systems can greatly extend the reach and versatility of these compact combatants. OPVs as a category are not well-defined; they're generally smaller than a corvette, larger than a patrol boat, and feature efficient diesel engines for long endurance,though generally at slower speeds than larger combatants.  They sometimes feature small flight decks (but usually not hangars), small-to-medium caliber naval guns, and a few have short-range surface-to-air missiles for self defense.  Though often conceptualized for coastal defense, the endurance and sea-keeping ability of OPVs often allows them to support global, open ocean missions.

The list of Navy OPVs operating as drone motherships is growing rapidly.  The new Irish Offshore Patrol Vessel  LÉ Samuel …

Drones and the Human-War Relationship

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Robots fascinate humans. They abound in movies: Star Wars, the Terminator, the Matrix. They are a foil for the human condition. In rosy predictions they are like Star Trek’s Data, “perfect” in strength and intellect yet void of emotion. In dystopian futures, killer robots are poetic justice. Created by humanity, robots attempt to annihilate their creators. If told killer robots exist in the U.S. arsenal, most Americans would probably think of “drones.” The name sounds robotic; it implies automaton behavior. Drones lack an onboard crew, and just like robots, drones fascinate Americans. In one important way, however, drones are not robots: they are flown by humans; they are just flown by remote control, but this creates a problem all of its own. The Armed Forces are not even sure how to deal with drone pilots. The pilots play a pivotal role in combat operations. They make life or death decisions. They press the button to fire missiles. They probably engage in more “lethal actions” than o…

The Ever-Expanding Mission Set of Naval Drones

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Hardly a single naval mission area remains that has been untouched by unmanned systems of the air, surface, or undersea variety.  Most recently, Italy's navy announced that with the help of surveillance from an unmanned air system, 1,049 African migrants en route to Sicily had been rescued.   The ongoing rescue missions are part of Operation "Mare Nostrum"(Our Sea), which has been underway since last fall when over 400 migrants from Eritirea and Syria perished near Italy's coasts. Presumably, the drone the Italians referenced was the ScanEagle, which was initially evaluated for ship-board use in October 2010. Two systems each consisting of 5 fixed-wing aircraft were purchased to be employed by the Maestrale Class Frigate beginning this year.  The Italians also recently acquired the S-100 Camcopter, intended for counter-piracy duties in the Indian Ocean.

A New Kind of Drone War: UCAV vs. UCLASS

The Australian government recently approved the acquisition of a fleet of US Navy Tritonsurveillance drones to patrol our oceans. Australia has mostly used Israeli drones to date, such as the Herons in Afghanistan. So as we dip our toes into the American UAV market, it’s worth taking note of a recent development that might be threatening US primacy in this area. While the Predator and Reaper laid the groundwork for the use of armed drones in warfare, a question remains about the survivability of the technology against modern air defences. Developing a stealthy long-range drone with a decent weapons payload that could go beyond missions in Yemen and Pakistan appeared to be the next order of business for the US, especially in the future Asia-Pacific theatre. Projects like the demonstrator X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) have shown promise in achieving those missions. But for now the US Navy has decided to go for an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) sys…

How Naval Drones Could Help Solve the Mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight #370

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If airborne search assets succeed in finding the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight #370, what happens
next?  Generally, the key to determining the cause of air plane crashes at sea is dependent upon the recovery of the data recorder, or "black box" as it is generally known.  A black box has an acoustic "pinger" which is activated upon hitting the water and transmits a signal, sometimes for up to 30 days.  Once crash debris is spotted on the ocean, salvage experts will use predictive modeling software to determine an approximate location of where the aircraft actually went down.  Even small ocean currents of a knot or two can push floating debris hundreds of miles away from the original crash site over a two week period.

At that point, if it is determined that one or more of the regional navies involved will search for the black box, a towed pinger locator will be deployed from a ship, along with a towed side scan sonar or deep-water capable unmanned underwate…

Unmanned Systems and Distributed Operations: Out of One, Many

Let’s face facts: it appears the U.S. Navy is incapable of building surface combatants, even small ones, for less than about a billion dollars apiece.  Consequently, it is likely the fleet will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.  Yet it appears that the global demand for surface ship presence remains high for both peacetime operations and as an on-call force for contingency response.  So how can the Navy continue to meet worldwide operational commitments given fewer ships?  The key to maximizing the effectiveness of a declining surface force lies in combining suitable motherships with the latest unmanned warfighting technology. Unmanned naval systems are rapidly proliferating internationally because they are increasingly capable and cheaper than manned alternatives for certain missions.  To date, sea-based unmanned systems have primarily conducted intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and mine countermeasures operations.  But within the next decade or so, we’ll see nav…

Remote Aviation Technology - What are we Actually Talking About?

In most ‘drone’ conferences, there comes an awkward moment when a panelist realizes that the category ‘drone’ has very little to do with the question that they’re asking. To quote the Renaissance philosopher Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” In order to improve the remote aviation technology discussion, we need to be clear what we’re actually talking about. 

What we should be talking about is ‘remote aviation technology,’ which is simply a fusion of the air and cyber domains through the ubiquitous technologies of datalinks, autopilots, and performance airframes. The fundamental tension is not between risk and responsibility, the two things over which the pop-sci-strat ‘drone’ debate obsesses, but between latency and performance. To the risk point, a military has a moral obligation to reduce risk to its warfighters, so reducing risk through tech is not new; to the responsibility point, professionalism and integrity are the roots for the warfi…