Unmanned Surface Vehicles
Twenty-first-century advances are making it possible to use ever larger surface naval vessels to perform missions at sea with minimal human intervention.
In 2002, as the U.S. Navy’s interest in unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) began to increase, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) initiated several science and technology programs to help USVs perform naval missions. These programs addressed platform design; launch, recovery and refueling; payloads; and autonomous control.
This work resulted in USVs capable of performing missions previously possible only with much larger, more expensive, manned platforms—and resulted in the Navy’s moving forward with an acquisition program.
Technical challenges, however, still remain to deal with the substantial amount of human oversight and communications bandwidth required to operate USVs.
In 2004, ONR initiated a program for autonomous control, using algorithms and sensors, with only a limited human supervisory role. This was a substantial technical challenge because of the harsh dynamics of the sea surface and the potential high density of other maritime traffic.
A first test in 2014 using multiple unmanned surface vessels controlled semi-autonomously proved that such craft could accomplish missions cooperatively.
(U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)
The autonomous control system developed in the program has been installed on 14 different USV types, and has participated in numerous fleet experiments and demonstrations. One of these, the USV Swarm demonstration in August 2014, used five USVs under autonomous control to perform escort and surface attack missions. Attention is now turning to autonomous control of larger USVs that will have bigger payload capacities, the ability to operate in higher sea states, and much longer ranges. This will create many new opportunities to use USVs in a wide range of naval missions.