Bluetech 2018—Blue Technology Conference Showcases Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) Systems and Applications

The recent BlueTech Summit & Tech Expo in San Diego, sponsored for the 10th year by The Maritime Alliance showcased a remarkably broad spectrum of advanced products and solutions targeted to aspects of the Blue Technology space, that is, technology devoted to ocean and freshwater applications. Of particular interest to me were companies presenting products in support of unmanned surface vessels, or USV’s, as opposed to their underwater counterparts (UUV’s). USV’s can be thought of as an advanced version of well-established Remote Operating Vehicles (ROV’s). USV’s are not tethered by a control cable to a surface ship, which greatly increases range and versatility. Because they remain on the surface, they can rely on satellite or other communication networks for command/control and data transmission. Gathering data right at the surface can be impacted by noise form waves and propeller cavitation, so some USV’s include a large subsurface keel for sensors. Many USV’s on the market today can operate autonomously.

The term “autonomous” is used widely these days. We discuss its meaning relative to “automatic” and “automated” here. Technically, a system that follows a pre-programmed set of instructions is automated, while a system that “understands” a goal and works independently to realize that goal is “autonomous”. Autonomy is used liberally by marketers, and many systems on the market have some level of autonomy, or are capable of it with modifications to the software.

Benefits of Unmanned Surface Vessels

Unmanned surface systems have two main benefits; they can perform routine tasks repetitively and accurately, and they are generally much cheaper to operate than manned vessels, as they can be smaller and have fewer safety features. USV’s can feature a variety of propulsion systems, including small diesel for better power and higher speeds, or electric systems that can be charged by solar panels. Some USV’s feature autonomously-controlled wind-driven (sail) systems. Today there are electric-powered sail-assisted systems that can operate in favorable conditions nearly indefinitely. While diesel boats are faster, electric systems are preferred for operations that require reduced noise, such as acoustic data-gathering or stealth.

Retrofit USVs

Sea Machines Robotics has an interesting approach to the USV market. As opposed to making turnkey ready-to-deploy USVs, the company markets control systems for existing surface craft, either by integration into new construction or retrofit into existing craft. Two control systems on the market today are SM200, which provides remote control only, or SM300, which can operate autonomously and provides a degree of situational awareness and sense and avoid. Sea Machines markets to customers operating commercial workboats in a variety of applications. Retrofitted boats can do repetitive tasks, freeing up scarce experienced personnel for other more technical (and better paying) jobs. They can be used in situations where risks are higher. Finally, they can extend the life of workboats that would otherwise be retired, capital equipment that has been fully amortized.

USVs vs. UUVs

As mentioned previously, UUV’s can have an advantage over USV’s because they can avoid surface noise and vibration which can interfere with sensitive data-gathering. Companies like iXblue and SubSeaSail provide a submerged instrument pod or keel, which mitigates much of the problem. SubSeaSail also offers wind-aided propulsion and solar charging, iXblue’s DriX offers the reliability and greater power/speed of diesel.

Unmanned Surface Vessels in Anti-submarine Warfare

USV manufacturers overall concentrate much of their promotional effort on data-gathering applications for commercial and basic research. However, another potential market worldwide is anti-submarine warfare. The United States Navy has traditionally led the way in this area. Large acoustic arrays installed on the ocean floor in strategic areas throughout the world detected signature noise profiles consistent with various types of machinery. The stationary array output was augmented with information from acoustic arrays towed by surface ships. These data were analyzed, and where appropriate an attack submarine was assigned to shadow the target. As installed and operated, the system was far too expensive and complex for other nations to emulate. In the days when these systems were first implemented, very few nations were capable of operating effective military submarines. Today there are diesel-electric boats operated by many nations. They do not have the endurance of nuclear boats, but they are very quiet on electric and a potential threat in limited theatres. Larger numbers of potential targets presents a challenge. USV’s can be a potential solution, as they are extremely inexpensive to operate, difficult to detect due to a low-radar profile, quiet operation and small size, and they don’t put personnel in harm’s way. USV’s might some day be operated as a swarm, so that a few units could be lost and the system still completes the mission.

An anti-submarine USV is probably most vulnerable when a detection is made requiring data transmission to a satellite. While the data can be encrypted, the transmission itself can be detected and triangulated, so that the position of the USV can be reliably identified. Running at 6-10 knots, a USV will probably not be able to clear the area before opposing aircraft or surface ships arrive. The product from Ocean Aero answers this issue with a versatile system that operates as an electric wind-assisted solar charged USV which can then fold the sail down and dive underwater to depths of up to 100Meters. The system can potentially operate for several hours underwater.

Market Potential

The market potential for these systems is very broad. The startups listed here and many other companies with products in the space will need to make the tough choice between going after defense dollars and dealing with the exhausting FARs-based acquisition process, or assemble competent and effective marketing/sales engines to carve a place in a commercial niche. Many before them have attempted to do both, or “just take a government job when a good one comes along” and stick with commercial. This strategy will likely fail, if for no other reason than it will stretch product development past the breaking point to where a company is simply building an endless series of money-losing one-off systems. The ones that will win will make the tough strategic choices now.