Tomorrow’s Defense: Unmanned Vehicles Enter the Naval Arena
By Tom Mulligan
A little more than a year ago, 40 global research and defense companies met to discuss how unmanned systems could be used by the world’s armies, air forces and navies in the defense systems of the future. This led to the British Royal Navy staging its first ‘robot wars’ last fall to give companies the chance to demonstrate their latest technology in a realistic workout. In the largest exercise of its kind ever staged, ‘Unmanned Warrior’, held off the coasts of Scotland and Wales, provided an international showcase for industry to demonstrate what autonomous systems can do for naval warfare, including the use of unmanned vessels (AUVs, ROVs, USVs) in surveys, antisubmarine warfare, ISTAR (information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) and mine hunting.
Royal Navy Fleet Robotics Officer, Commander Peter Pipkin, stated that Unmanned Warrior, the brainchild of First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, was “a unique and innovative challenge to deliver the Royal Navy’s vision for autonomous systems.”
Sir Philip Jones, Fleet Commander and Vice-Admiral at the time, added that as an instinctive innovator and exploiter of modern technology, the Royal Navy was enthusiastic about new ideas, new concepts and new technology: “In our view the unique selling point of Unmanned Warrior is its ability to provide a playground, if you like, in which we can simultaneously demonstrate unmanned systems and do so across a range of warfare disciplines. We see a clear opportunity to shape the future of not just the Royal Navy but a raft of our partners.”
Challenging Test Environment
The main planning conference for the exercise took place last October and Unmanned Warrior saw representatives from defense, industry and academia discuss how to deliver such a large unmanned systems event and decided that the demonstration of unmanned systems would be overlaid onto the twice-yearly multinational ‘Joint Warrior’ exercise to set a more challenging environment for the participants and allow the Royal Navy to see first-hand how some of the systems and sensors could integrate into current and future operations.
Unmanned Warrior saw more than 50 vehicles, sensors and systems operating in a number of themed activities in the U.K. Ministry of Defense exercise areas based around Scotland and Wales, the organizers deliberately trying to keep the scope of activity as broad as possible with few, if any, constraints on what participants were allowed to demonstrate.
“Unmanned Warrior was about seeking innovative ways to operate on the leading edge of technology; it wasn’t about removing humans from the decision chain or replacing every bit of our current capabilities with unmanned systems. If a system was unmanned and could operate in the maritime environment then we worked hard to find a way of incorporating it into the program,” said Commander Pipkin.
Admiral Sir Philip Jones, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, added, “Unmanned Warrior clearly demonstrated the Royal Navy’s ambition to lead and win through technological innovation. Unmanned maritime systems will change how we operate, but they’re just the start. Our pursuit of new technologies and ideas – from big data to 3D-printing – will ensure we remain one of the most capable and successful navies in the world.”
Delivering Maritime Capability
When the Unmanned Warrior program was completed in line with the U.K. government’s Strategic Defense and Security Review direction on innovation and defense exports, the Royal Navy invited industry, academia and other defense partners, including the U.S. Navy and NATO’s Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation, to safely experiment and demonstrate the potential offered by maritime autonomous systems within the Joint Warrior operational environment, exploring the feasibility of increasing the use of unmanned and autonomous systems in delivering maritime capability, featuring the latest unmanned system technologies for air, surface and sub-surface use.
Joint Warrior provides a complex environment in which U.K., NATO and allied units can go through training together in tactics and skills for use in a combined joint task force. The exercise runs through a range of scenarios, including crisis and conflict situations, that could be realistically encountered in operations taking place over disputed territory, or against terrorist activity, piracy and more. Unmanned Warrior was explicitly designed to fit into this framework while also demonstrating British innovation and highlighting the strengths of British industry.
Taking place in the fall of 2016, Unmanned Warrior saw 40 participants from industry, academia and defense, including the U.S. Navy and NATO’s Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation, operating unmanned and autonomous vehicles, sensors and software in the air, on the surface and underwater in an exercise predominantly funded by the participants that provided a showcase for the demonstration of products in a tactically relevant environment. Commander Pipkin commented, “The overall value [of Unmanned Warrior] is in transforming the market as a whole by creating increased demand for these technologies, not seeking specific business opportunities within the event.”
The demonstrations in Unmanned Warrior were based around the following five themes that were selected by participants:
- Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW)
- Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR)
- Command and Control
- Hydrographic and Geointelligence
- Mine Countermeasures (MCM)
“We deliberately adopted a different approach to capability demonstration in that the MOD invited participants to offer their thoughts on what future capability might look like and where technology could be exploited without any preconceptions,” stated Commander Pipkin. “This recognizes that we do not always have a crystal ball but are willing to look at the full breadth of possible technology exploitation paths.”
The 40 industry partners and international allies showcasing the latest in remote technology presented more than 50 aerial, surface and underwater maritime autonomous systems (MAS) in a range of demonstrations on the themes of surveillance, intelligence-gathering and mine countermeasures. The collaborative approach of Unmanned Warrior is at the heart of the U.K.’s new Defense Innovation Initiative and the £800 million ($985 million) fund that supports the generation of ideas to benefit both the country’s defense and British business. U.K. Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon MP, commented, “The sheer scale of this exercise demonstrates how our armed forces are leading in developing futuristic technologies to keep us safe at sea or in the air. This is part of our new approach to harnessing innovation, backed by a rising defense budget, to ensure we keep ahead of our adversaries.”
Commander Pipkin added, “The technologies demonstrated in Unmanned Warrior have the potential to fundamentally change the future of Royal Navy operations just as the advent of steam propulsion or submarines did. This is a chance to take a great leap forward in maritime systems – not to take people out of the loop, but to enhance everything they do, extending our reach and efficiency using intelligent robotics at sea.”
Thales Group: Benefits of taking part in Unmanned Warrior
Thales Group played a key role in the U.K. Royal Navy’s Unmanned Warrior exercise held in the fall of 2016. Thales demonstrated its capability through the Watchkeeper Unmanned Aircraft System, the Halcyon Unmanned Surface Vehicle and its collaborative work in the field of unmanned command and control research. Watchkeeper, currently in service with the British Army, flew for the first time in a littoral naval environment operating alongside a Type 23 warship and a merchant vessel and was integrated into a series of exercises varying from persistent wide-area surveillance support up to 150 km offshore to landing forces and naval gunfire support. Data collected by Watchkeeper were streamed down remotely to the vessels and analyzed by operators to make better-informed command decisions in support of the trials.
Also participating was Thales’s Halcyon Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) equipped with a Thales Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar. The USV took part in a number of minehunting challenges aimed at demonstrating the significant benefits of autonomous technology when operating in hostile environments, including the reduction of risk to life. Missions using Halcyon were planned and coordinated using Thales mission management software, providing comprehensive command and control of the USV operation. Thales is a key sensor provider to the Royal Navy’s existing minehunting fleet through the operationally proven Sonar 2093 and Sonar 2193.
Thales is also involved, with industry partners, in the U.K.’s Defense Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL) innovative research program MAPLE (Maritime Autonomous Platform Exploitation), which is developing the future architecture for Unmanned Systems Command and Control by enabling multiple unmanned platforms, such as unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and their payloads, to be commanded and controlled from a single control station. The company has been instrumental in the design of this multi-domain architecture and has brought experience of operating unmanned vehicles into this design activity.