On Tuesday, the US Navy welcomed the third great Overlord unmanned surface vessel into its fleet, as this service gears up for the USV experimentation ashore and at sea.
Mariner is managed by prime contractor Leidos and constructed by Gulf Craft in Louisiana. It was successfully delivered in March. It was reportedly christened on 23 August at the US Naval Academy.
It’s outfitted with next-gen capabilities, including a command and control system, a unique virtualized Aegis Combat System, and an autonomous navigation system. After additional upgrades and testing, it will head out to California to begin operations in FY 23, the Navy’s program executive officer responsible for small and unmanned combatants, Rear Adm. Casey Moton, told the reporters during a tour.
Mariner’s sister vessels named Ranger and Nomad recently took part in the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise conducted in Hawaii. Moton said that adding Mariner to the USV fleet would add volume and new features as the Navy learns further about operating an unmanned craft and decides what the next-gen hybrid manned and unmanned fleet should look like.
The Navy’s test plan includes at-sea and land-based testing. During land-based testing, the Navy can easily install new items, conduct tests for longer phases and in better-controlled conditions, and update systems more seamlessly as test results highlight the much-needed fixes.
The Navy ultimately has seven USVs to experiment with at sea. These include the Mariner, Overlord USV Vanguard, Nomad, and Ranger. Overlord USV Vanguard is being constructed in Austal, the USA, with L3Harris; along with Medium USV prototypes – the Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk, which participated in the RIMPAC, and a third medium-size vessel that has a contract with L3Harris.
Moton reportedly argued that it is essential to have several at-sea platforms for testing owing to the scale of testing, working with different vendors’ systems for better perception, machinery control, autonomy, and more, and testing potential payloads.
A new feature built into Mariner is expected to permit unique operations testing at sea; the virtualized Aegis Combat System will likely permit the Mariner to control yet another USV fully.
A program official mentioned at the tour that USV Division 1 staff in California, who could shortly utilize USVs from an unmanned operations centre ashore or a Navy ship like a destroyer, can use Mariner as a training vessel. They would be embarking it as they’d do for a destroyer and control another USV manually from the combat system of the Mariner.
A USV Division 1 official was able to work with destroyers during the RIMPAC. However, due to busy deployment and training schedules, accessing warships for experiments is far from the usual norm. That is why officials hope that Mariner can serve as a training ship for the division staff as they comprehend how to engage a USV from a vessel at sea.
When it comes to land-based testing, Moton mentioned that the Navy is proceeding with the industry-led examination of the engines for the unmanned vessels even though its authorized USV land-based engineering site is now in construction at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia.
L3Harris boasts a MUSV plant located in Camden. This one will be transitioned to the Navy’s facility across the river, providing the service moves ahead with those USVs. The Navy is committed to a huge robotic-ship program (known as the LUSV). It is weighing the value of medium-sized vessels against the abilities small drones in significant numbers may be able to bring.
On the LUSV, different potential engines are being examined ashore by vendors — which per Moton is a good thing for technology development — and that work will be moved to Philly when the new test centre is set.
Despite the testing, Navy officials on tour mentioned that the commercial industry personnel has already carried out a lot of work to help mature the autonomy systems on vessels. In the case of Mariner’s initial and authentic design, the autonomy features were reportedly enhanced for the fast-supply vessel to fetch materials and people to any oil rig with a crew of six on the 194-foot boat.
Owing to the preexisting importance placed on autonomy and redundancy to support a small crew, the vessel had been designed incorporating five new water jets, each with their drive trains and engines and an ability to switch between them if a problem arose.
The Cummins engines were constructed in a manner that could avoid oil changes — something that’d otherwise prevent the USVs from functioning for months without crew members — using a system that automatically burns off old lube oil and again pours new lube oil.
The Navy added a web of cables that link sensors to the vessel’s systems and enable the machinery control system to monitor the hull, electrical, and mechanical systems and shift between the redundant systems whenever necessary.
Brian Fitzpatrick is USVs’ principal assistant program manager at the unmanned maritime systems program office. He mentioned that the Navy had collected about 400 terabytes of data from Nomad, Ranger, Sea Hawk, and Sea Hunter at RIMPAC and that his office would be spending the next few months analyzing data to have an idea of system performance at sea and refine what kind of data they desired to collect soon.
Fitzpatrick mentioned that the Navy had been looking forward to delivering the final OUSV prototype called Vanguard, which takes Mariner’s original design and then scales it up to one that extends up to 205 feet as the bigger vessel can store more fuel and gain a greater range. It can also haul heavier payloads. Vanguard, according to Fitzpatrick, would push the limits of what a vessel of such size class may be able to do for the Navy.
The program-of-record LUSV’s design has not yet been finalized, but it is expected to be larger than Mariner and Vanguard. Moton and Fitzpatrick mentioned that testing ashore and at sea will apply equally to a future LUSV and a probable MUSV from an engineering perspective. From an employment point of view, the Navy knows what it wants from LUSV — to serve as an adjunct missile launcher — but examining will inform if hauling around the electronic warfare packages and sensors on a vessel of such a size is at all worth the high price.
Moton mentioned that he thinks it’s healthy for the US Navy’s top levels to have that question regarding what a hybrid fleet, both manned and unmanned, appears to be like. And they are essentially providing feedback and data on the operations concepts supporting the discussion.
References: Defense News, Louisiana News