Naval War College Professor Shares History, Breadth of Unmanned Systems
Robotic and unmanned systems are having an impact in many aspects of American culture. How these systems are used for military and civilian purposes was the topic of a Knowledge Management Forum at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport on Jan. 18.
The lecture, titled "Robots that Fly, Swim and Crawl," was given by professor John E. Jackson of the Naval War College (NWC) and broadcast via livestream.
Basing his presentation on his book “One Nation, Under Drones,” published by the U.S. Naval Institute in 2018, Jackson covered the history of unmanned systems, current applications, and a glimpse at where the technology is headed. The majority of examples Jackson provided have been used for surveillance and defense purposes by the military.
“I hope the audience learned about the full range of robotic systems in use and those being developed, and understand the capabilities and limitations of these ‘robots,’” Jackson said. “These systems have matured due to the engineering and scientific developments made by the military in labs at NUWC and elsewhere.”
Mark Dalton, chief strategist in Division Newport’s Strategic Planning Office, invited Jackson to give his unclassified presentation as part of the ongoing Knowledge Management Forum.
“I invited professor Jackson as an effort to expand the topic areas covered by the forum and to build a greater connection between NUWC and the Naval War College,” Dalton said. “While the professor covered UUVs, I think it’s important for NUWC personnel to have a broader view of unmanned systems in domains outside of the undersea variety.”
Jackson, who holds the E.A. Sperry Chair of Unmanned and Robotic Systems at NWC, has taught about national security decision-making, logistics, and unmanned and robotic systems, for more than 20 years. He is also the program manager for the Chief of Naval Operation's Professional Reading Program, and serves on the President's Action Group and as Chairman of the 9-11 Memorial Committee.
From the Sperry Automatic Airplane in 1918 to unmanned systems being used in the war in Ukraine, Jackson provided examples throughout history of aerial, underwater and surface unmanned systems.
The devices Jackson described varied in design, power source, purpose and size. They ranged as small as the hand-held Instant-Eye Quadrotor, which uses a camera to show soldiers in real time what might await them on the other side of a hill, to the Lockheed KMAX helicopter that could lift 6,000 pounds, to Boeing’s 80-foot-long Echo Voyager unmanned submarine ¬− capable of launching unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles, mines, or torpedoes, carrying Navy SEALs, and diving to a depth of 11,000 feet.
The Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV), christened at Division Newport’s Narragansett Bay Test Facility last February, was among Jackson’s examples.
“Snakehead is a very large diameter UUV that has demonstrated the potential to meet the operational demands of the warfighters for long periods and stealthy surveillance in the undersea battlespace,” Jackson said.
The proliferation of drones and other unmanned vehicles has raised some ethical questions, such as attaching biological weapons to a drone or using potentially dangerous sources of power to operate them, Jackson said.
“The Chinese are developing a version of the Echo Voyager that has extreme range because it uses a reactor as a power source, as opposed to the diesel/electric power that the U.S. version uses,” he said. “The U.S. position is we’re not going to allow a radioactive source to be wandering around in the ocean by itself. China appears to not have those compunctions.”
Jackson estimated that 47–50 countries are developing unmanned systems for military purposes. As technology has evolved, finding ways to combat potential threats has been difficult.
“One of the things we’re concerned about is swarms of drones,” Jackson said. “What if someone sends dozens or hundreds of drones against you? It is a very big challenge.”
There are a few proven ways to counter unmanned aerial systems. Sky Wall uses a compressed air canister and a viewfinder to shoot a projectile that splits open and drops a net with a parachute attached to safely bring down a drone. Dronekiller uses electronics to jam a drone’s control signal to force it off target or to land. A pitfall of using electronic counter measures is they can interfere with other frequencies in the vicinity. Hawks have also been trained to bring down drones.
While this was Jackson’s first visit to Division Newport in recent years, he’s had plenty of interaction with the Division’s engineers and scientists at the Naval War College.
“NUWC has a multi-media tradeshow booth at the college twice a year,” Jackson said.