Why the US Navy sends robots to sea

The sea is vast and full of secrets, and the US Navy is learning about them. This fall, in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, the Navy experimented with new robotic boats. These machines, the Saildrone and the unmanned surface vessel MANTAS T-38, are forays into the launch of future autonomous sensing machine flotillas, all of which promise to expand the reach of what the Navy can know about the waters. that she patrols.

The Saildrone Explorer looks like a windsurfer without a human clinging to it. With a body 23 feet long and measuring 16 feet tall, the Explorer is primarily sailing. It derives its electrical energy from the sun and its propelling force from the wind. Under sails, the drone travels between 2 and 7 mph. These vehicles can navigate long distances and long durations, with the company saying the drones can operate for up to 12 months on a mission before needing to disembark for maintenance.

Saildrones can be fitted with a range of sensors. The version of the surfer robot that Popular science selected for a Best of What’s New 2021 award was used by NOAA to track hurricane winds. Drones can carry sensors for wind speed and direction, for air temperature and humidity, for measuring the salinity and magnetic field of the ocean surface, and even for detecting the biomass of fish and the presence of mammals below the surface. Additionally, Saildrones can record video above the surface and use machine learning algorithms to detect targets. This is one of the main characteristics of interest to the Navy.

The Saildrone’s cameras and processing “enable real-time visual detection of targets that do not otherwise transmit their position,” the company claims, which can then be paired with radar, acoustic sensors and other detection systems to confirm an observation.

In November, the Navy announced that it would base these Saildrones at the Jordanian naval base in Aqaba in the Red Sea.

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“We are working harder and smarter to provide maritime security, in all areas – on the surface, below the surface and above the sea,” said Hisham Khaleel Aljarrah, commander of the Royal Jordanian Naval Force, in a statement. joint communication with the Navy. “The Red Sea will see a significant increase in surveillance and power projection to maintain stability and security in international waters. “

Michael Brasseur, head of the Navy’s Task Force for Robots and AI managing Saildrone, in a statement described the robots as leveraging “machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve maritime domain awareness. “, which then expands” the digital horizon with sustainable and zero carbon “. Solution.

It’s a heavy jargon sentence. In practice, this means that having cameras and other sensors on drones expands the area in which the Navy can know what’s going on. With wind propulsion and solar-powered electronics, the Saildrone suggests a low-impact operation, though it’s too early to say whether these robots will replace existing human-crewed ships. Instead, the adoption of robot ships should be seen as an extension of existing naval operations, with little increase in impact.

Saildrone is one of many Silicon Valley products to be sued by the Department of Defense this year. Lux Capital, the venture capital group that backed Saildrone, met with senior defense officials earlier this year. Lux specifically touts Saildrone as an alternative to more expensive manned vessels, highlighting an estimated operating cost of $ 80,000 / day for traditional scientific research. It is difficult to compare directly without a public operating cost per day for the Saildrones, or the loss of operational capability when transferring from a human-crewed vessel to a robotic vessel, but it should be noted that the Saildrone is marketed. Low cost. of use as well as the capacities of the machines.

A Saildrone Explorer off the Jordanian coast in the Gulf of Aqaba. Photo by Cape Town. DeAndre Dawkins, US Naval Forces Central Command / US 5th Fleet

On the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, the 5th Fleet of the US Navy has experimented with MANTAS robot ships. The individual ships are named for their length (the T-12 is 12 feet long and the T-38 is 38 feet). With fully electric and diesel / electric hybrid options, MANTAS robot catamarans are sensor platforms designed to sense danger and move quickly. The T12, which the Navy tested in October, has a top speed of up to 34 mph, and the T-38, which the Navy tested this month, can go over 90 mph.

MANTAS can carry a range of sensors, from camera modules to hydroacoustic systems, allowing ships to search for objects and actions in the sky, on the water surface and under the sea. In tests with the US Navy , the ships mainly followed autonomous directions for surveillance.

[Related: The US Navy launched a missile from a ghost ship. Wait, what?]

Between Saildrone and MANTAS, the Navy is clearly looking for ways to learn more about the seas in which it operates, without committing to sending more sailors on patrol. Robots like these have the potential to be a force multiplier, expanding the scope of what can be experienced without incurring additional work. While unmanned ships can be more vulnerable if found by hostile forces, this vulnerability can actually be an asset. A sensor system that has been deactivated is a source of information in its own right, and the ability to learn from attacks without first suffering the loss of human life is a good thing.

It remains to be seen how these robots will be employed at sea. Monitoring potential threats and mapping the underwater terrain are probably the first uses. It is possible in the future that such machine hazard assessments will be directly integrated into the targeting and fire controls of existing military vehicles, with the robots acting as more distant weapon observers on other ships.

So far, investment in boats shows a commitment to understanding the oceans as battlefields, patrolled on the far edge by robots.

Watch a video of the MANTAS T-12 here.


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