Maritime Robotics Key to Maintaining U.S. Advantage in Undersea Realm
By Brian Sprowl
The United States currently enjoys a significant advantage in the undersea realm, but according to Christine Fox, senior adviser at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, it is “absolutely the focus of competition and it is critically important from a national security perspective that we not get complacent, especially since this is one of the best deterrents that we have from any kind of hostility in the world.”
For Fox, maintaining this advantage is a matter of creativity. “We need more, and we need more innovation in this realm,” Fox, who previously served as the acting deputy secretary of defense, said during the 5th Annual Entrepreneur Forum in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in mid-July. "I think that unmanned underwater vehicles are really a key to this, and I do believe that the department is waking up to that fact,” she said.
According to Mike Smitsky, AUVSI's manager of advocacy and government relations, maintaining this advantage will also require the U.S. Navy continuing to prioritize unmanned maritime systems (UMS) programs in its annual budget requests. Smitsky, who also manages and staffs AUVSI's UMS Advocacy Committee, notes that in fiscal year 2020, the Navy requested several funding increases for UUV programs, but that is just the start of a much longer process. “These ambitious requests demonstrate leadership recognition that UUVs are critical to both the security of the country and the future complexion of the Naval fleet architecture. However, the battle does not end here. These requests must be authorized and appropriated,” he says.
Both the National Defense Authorization Act and the Defense Appropriations Act need to match the initial budget requests to materialize the Navy's vision. While the final product does not always match the initial requests, the UMS Advocacy Committee can help in this process by educating House and Senate offices who sit on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees on the significance of UMS to the future of the Navy.
“This process of consistently raising awareness about the importance of UMS technologies to the security of the nation ideally will help appropriations mirror the initial request by the Navy,” he says. He adds it is important to effectively articulate what the Navy's overall intent is with these programs, because if congress doesn't understand the context, it won't fund these programs. With the Navy being such a large entity with so much on its plate, the UMS Advocacy Committee wants to help inform the Navy of industries' positions, to help the U.S. maintain its advantage.
“By meeting with department leaders who prioritize UMS, the committee can act as an industry liaison and provide an external viewpoint on concepts like acquisition strategy, autonomy export controls, cybersecurity, and IT infrastructure,” Smitsky says. “As a result, industry can act as an accelerant and help the Navy adjust their focus where necessary.” Commercially, unmanned vehicles and robotics have the potential to impact a number of industries such as oil and gas, energy and aquaculture.
From a commercial integration standpoint, one of the biggest hurdles are the COLREGs. Traditionally, these set of regulations provide the “rules of the road” for vessels to prevent collisions, but due to the increased presence of UMS, COLREGs require “substantial updating,” Smitsky says.
During the 5th Annual Entrepreneur Forum in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Sea Machines demonstrated its autonomous vessel. All Photos: AUVSI
The rules are published by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which recently met to discuss autonomous vessel integration and COLREGs. The U.S. representative on the IMO is the United States Coast Guard, which has previously received industry input on what these updated rules should take into consideration. Other pieces of legislation include the Commercial Engagement Through Ocean Technology (CENOTE) Act of 2018, and the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2019, which the U.S. House of Representatives approved in late July. The bill moved to Senate at the time of publishing. Signed into law Dec. 21, 2018, the CENOTE Act of 2018 encourages partnerships between academia, the private sector, and the government in the realm of ocean observation. The CENOTE Act of 2018 authorizes the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to “evaluate the use of unmanned maritime system technology for use in data collection.”
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2019 (CGAA 2019) is legislation that “reauthorizes appropriations for the Coast Guard and Federal Maritime Commission through Fiscal Year 2021.” The bill also includes “regulatory improvements to promote the U.S. maritime industry and offshore renewable energy development, ongoing authorization of funding to build new polar security cutters (heavy ice breakers), new requirements for the Coast Guard to assess and evaluate unmanned technologies for potential use in Coast Guard operations, provisions to increase diversity at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and new maritime safety enhancements.” AUVSI's UMS Advocacy Committee played an influential role on section 416 of this bill, which “directs the Commandant of the Coast Guard to develop a plan for a demonstration program that will assess the feasibility of using unmanned maritime systems for surveillance of marine protected areas and to submit a report to Congress on that plan.” “Both of these bills are legislative vehicles that provide additional authorities for NOAA and the USCG to deploy UMS technology,” Smitsky says.
Collaboration and innovation
One vehicle that has helped the U.S. maintain its advantage in the undersea realm thus far is the Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS (REMUS) AUV, designed for ocean research.
Tend Ocean demonstrates its Drone Tug during the 5th Annual Entrepreneur Forum.
Developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Falmouth, Massachusetts, REMUS was originally developed for coastal monitoring, but it can also be used for other tasks such as surveying and mapping, “traveling methodically over an area like a lawnmower to sample key ocean characteristics,” according to WHOI. Falmouth was the site of the 5th Annual Entrepreneur Forum that focused on defining the challenges facing the marine robotics' industry and framing initiatives that the industry could undertake as a collective to accelerate progress. REMUS is manufactured commercially by the WHOI spinoff company Hydroid, a subsidiary of Kongsberg Maritime. With the potential for so many use cases, the Navy purchased REMUS and decided to use it for mine warfare, an area that has plagued the U.S. forever, Fox said, because mines are very low cost, making them easily accessible for any adversary that wants to cause harm to the U.S.
With this in mind, the Navy decided to adapt REMUS for mine warfare. Renaming it Mk 18 Mod 1, the AUV was fielded and proved very successful in helping advance mine warfare. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the U.S. Navy used REMUS vehicles to detect mines in the Persian Gulf harbor of Umm Qasr. Navy officers said they preferred REMUS AUVs because each could do the work of 12 to 16 human divers, and they were “undeterred by cold temperatures, murky water, sharks, or hunger,” according to WHOI's website.
Working in partnership with the operational community, the Navy upgraded Mk 18 Mod 1, resulting in Mk 18 Mod 2, which was possible due to the vehicle's modularity. Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory is also taking advantage of REMUS' modularity, as it is injecting deep learning algorithms into the vehicle to help identify mines and achieve a lofty goal it has set regarding mine warfare. “Our aspirational goal at APL is to be able to clear a minefield as fast as an adversary can lay it,” Fox said. While aspirational, improving the ability to do the target recognition is a “very, very important first step,” Fox added.
To help “accelerate the United States' ability to effectively and efficiently monitor ocean activity using autonomous systems,” one Navy alumnus has taken the lessons learned during a prolific career and is implementing them through a company called ThayerMahan Inc.
During his 35-year career with the Navy, Mike Connor, the founder, president and CEO of ThayerMahan, rose to the rank of vice admiral. Connor led the U.S. Navy Submarine Force's move into robotic undersea systems, achieving several milestones along the way, including the first operational deployment and recovery of an unmanned vehicle from a submarine.
During the Entrepreneur Forum, Connor described the ocean as “an increasingly crowded place.” Trying to conduct various tasks such as growing and catching food, or harvesting wind energy, has become increasingly difficult against the backdrop of shipping traffic that has gone up about 400 percent in the last 15 years, and the fact that there are a lot of new threats out there.
“In order to do all those things in the same space, without having disaster strike, we have to do all those things more precisely and with better information,” Connor said. With that in mind, ThayerMahan focuses on developing systems that that can go to sea for 90 days or more at a time. The company finds vehicles, generally off the shelf, and put payloads on them “to do useful things for what we think will be actual paying customers,” Connor said.
When offering fellow entrepreneurs in the room advice on how to establish themselves within the industry, Connor said that it was important for those developing this technology to find their place within the ecosystem. He also said that entrepreneurs in this industry should embrace an unlikely entity for potential partnerships.
“The government is your partner, whether you want them to be or not, because they might be a direct customer, and they're a good customer,” Connor said. “They're a challenging customer, and it takes a while to get things in place, but once they are in place, they're a very reliable customer, and they pay faster than all of my commercial customers.” Those weren't the only benefits to working with the government, Connor noted.
“In many cases, they also set the rules, and if you're in a new industry like offshore wind, you can work with your large partner and the government, and perhaps influence the rules so that we can raise the standards, so that as we coexist in the ocean environment, we do it in a much more responsible way,” Connor said. “And that involves, in many cases, educating the government on the art of the possible. And you have to just be willing to talk to all the people that it takes to make all those things happen.”
Fox echoed those sentiments about partnership between industry and the government. “This, I think, is the future. This partnership that we can enjoy between national security needs in the undersea realm and you,” Fox said.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution demonstrates its JetYak Remote Surface Vehicle during the 5th Annual Entrepreneur Forum.