As the Navy continues its pursuit of unmanned vehicles, Huntington Ingalls Industries hopes to harness its experience building the service’s largest platforms to expand naval capability in the unmanned realm.
After purchasing a company that builds unmanned undersea vehicles earlier this year, HII last month announced an investment in Sea Machines Robotics, a company located in Boston, Mass. that focuses on software for the unmanned surface vehicle market.
Andy Green, HII Technical Solutions group president, said the latest investment will allow the company to respond to the Navy’s requests and help the service learn more about the new unmanned technologies it plans to use.
“Unmanned vehicles – whether surface or sub-surface – they extend the reach and act as a multiplier of existing platforms for, whether it’s [the] United States Navy or one of our allies, it provides significant extension of those platforms’ capabilities, regardless of the specific mission the platform’s being used for,” Green told USNI News in a recent interview.
The former submariner billed unmanned platforms as a way for the Navy to supplement legacy platforms like amphibious ships and combatants with new technology.
“They’re essentially augmenting the larger combatant platforms that are out there, whether you’re talking about submarines or DDGs, or amphibs,” he said of the unmanned surface vehicles.
Green described the Sea Machines investment as a “logical extension” of what HII delivers to the Navy.
“Sea Machines brings a set of capabilities to the table that we believe has a lot of potential in the USV market, which is why we got involved with them,” he told USNI News. “But there are a lot of other pieces to the puzzle. When you talk about the different technologies, because they go into UUVs and USVs, the autonomy software is just one piece of that.”
“When you say autonomy, there’s a lot of subsets of autonomy that you got to think about, whether you’re thinking about controlling propulsion, you’re controlling steering and navigation, etc, or your control of whatever devices and sensors that you’ve got onboard,” he continued.
In a press release announcing the investment from HII, Sea Machines defined its autonomous control system as one that “works under the command of a human operator” and “boosts the predictability and precision of operations while lowering the risk of fatigue-related incidents.”
HII first launched into the unmanned market in early 2015, when the company disclosed its purchase of The Columbia Group’s Engineering Solutions Division, which built the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle known as Proteus. Then, earlier this year, HII reached a $350 million deal with Kongsberg to purchase Hydroid, which builds unmanned underwater vehicles.
HII also joined Boeing in a collaborative bid for the Navy’s Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, for which Boeing received a $43 million contract to build four vessels in February 2019.
The most recent investment from HII in the unmanned surface vehicle arena comes as the Navy works to determine how unmanned vehicles will fit into its future fleet architecture. Last year, the Navy stood up Surface Development Squadron 1 (SURFDEVRON) to cultivate the service’s concepts of operations for unmanned vehicles. SURFDEVRON is using the Navy’s Sea Hunter, a medium unmanned surface vehicle born out of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency endeavor, to experiment with the CONOPS.
But the pursuit of unmanned platforms has hit roadblocks in Congress, as lawmakers express skepticism over the Navy’s approach and suggest the service is moving too quickly on technology it has yet to test. House and Senate authorizers in drafting the fiscal year 2021 defense policy bills sought to increase oversight of the Navy’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle program.
Green said that HII, due to its history building platforms from aircraft carriers to submarines, is in a unique position to help the Navy. HII is the only contractor that builds the service’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The company also builds amphibious assault ships, amphibious transport dock vessels, and destroyers.
“When you think about how we can leverage unmanned systems technology in our existing platforms . . . because we make all those platforms . . . we have the ability to, as these technologies develop, to do technology insertion, to work with our program folks on the larger programs . . . and see where we can insert those technologies — see where we can leverage all of our many many decades of experience in building maritime platforms and undersea platforms — leverage that in developing technology that’s going to take UUVs and USVs to that next stage,” he said.
One way HII can help the Navy, according to Green, is by discovering “creative ways” the service could employ autonomous technology, or launch and recover unmanned platforms.
“Everybody is sort of trying to feel out this space and figure out how it’s going to evolve and how the CONOPS are going to evolve, etc. and I think being there, at the table, partnered with the Navy across all platforms certainly puts us in a good position to help them out,” Green said. “And if we can continue producing these platforms, making sure that the costs are as controlled as possible — keep these programs as affordable as possible — while giving them what they need in terms of capability and bringing them good ideas maybe that they hadn’t thought of on how to use these things, then I think we’ll all be in a good position.”
By investing in both the unmanned undersea and surface vehicle areas, Green said HII can support the Navy with the interoperability and integration the service will require as it grows its unmanned arsenal.
“I think the more that we can invest in and demonstrate that we can weave these technologies together across the UUV space and the USV space, I think the better it is for the Navy,” Green said. “Because the more commonality they have across their programs and the better these vehicles can communicate, not only with manned platforms, whether it be sub-sea, surface or air, but also communicate with other unmanned platforms – sub-sea, surface and air — it’s going to be helpful to them.”