What will the an operational navy look like in 2036? This month's “Unmanned Warrior” 2016 exercise taking place off the northwest coast of Scotland provided some of the answers. Dozens of unmanned systems have been operating off Scotland as part of the Unmanned Warrior exercise, held in conjunction with the 18-nation tri-service “Joint Warrior” 2016 exercise.

The Royal Navy's (RN) first ever large scale demonstration of maritime robotic systems not only showcased new technology, but tested the ability of unmanned vehicles to work with one another as well as with conventional naval ships.

Including 5,700 personnel, 31 warships, and almost 70 aircraft, it was a major international effort to develop tactics and skills to deal with conflicts in the air, on the surface, underwater, and in amphibious operations.

Unmanned Warrior assessed the rapidly emerging autonomous and remote controlled technologies that could play a major part in wars of the future. With operations spread over the west coast of Scotland and west Wales, Unmanned Warrior played host to over 50 aerial, surface and underwater Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) as they explored the areas of surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and mine countermeasures (MCM).

The machines used in the exercise were a remarkable spectrum of aircraft, surface vessels, and underwater craft.

The star of the show, according to the RN, was the British Army's WATCHKEEPER Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operated by the Royal Artillery 47th Regiment, which was not only part of the tests, but also provided support for ships heading for Joint Warrior.

Other aircraft include Blue Bear's hand-launched BLACKSTART winged drone, the Schiebel CAMCOPTER S100 VTOL UAS, the US Navy’s (USN) NRQ 21 fixed wing UAV (designed and manufactured by Insitu, whose SCANEAGLE UAV technologies have been applied to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] efforts, as well as civil and commercial industries for environmental monitoring, precision agriculture, search-and-rescue [SAR], disaster relief, and even mining operations), Vigor Industrial’s twin engined SEA HUNTER, self-landing UAVs, another SCANEAGLE with a new visual detection and ranging system (expected to be phased out of service in 2017), the Lockheed Martin Procerus Technologies INDAGO quadrotor UAS, and the Leonardo SW-4 SOLO optionally piloted helicopter on surveillance missions, carrying the OSPREY flat-panel electronically scanned radar, EO/IR payload, and SAGE electronic support measures system.

The US brought 10 promising technologies to the exercise, taking them out of the lab and putting them into the hands of soldiers to understand their utility in real-world scenarios as well as how they would need to be matured to be most useful and employable.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) led a team of science and technology experts to Scotland for the exercise, with ONR’s Capt. Beth Creighton leading the overall Unmanned Warrior 2016 command element alongside the Joint Warrior exercise’s command element, stating that the USN’s 10 participating unmanned vehicles – including ocean gliders that collect oceanographic information, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) that can pass information ashore in real-time via unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) relays – were chosen based on several criteria.

Examples at the exercise included the Sensor Hosting Autonomous Remote Craft (SHARC) from Boeing and Liquid Robotic, designed for long-endurance autonomous operation in the open sea, of which four were used to deliver continuous maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions for “up to a year” without refuelling or servicing. These crafts employ innovative wave- and solar-powered propulsion system, and carry a sensor suite provided by Boeing. Its ability to conduct continuous patrols using autonomous navigation gives SHARC unique access to undersea, air and space domains. Multiple SHARCs can be monitored and controlled by a single, shore-side operator. To date, more than 50 sensors have been tested and integrated on SHARC, including Automated Identification System (AIS), acoustic sensors, electromagnetic sensors, and imaging systems. SHARC’s onboard open architecture, commercial standards and modular configuration that allows rapid integration of advanced technologies and innovative payloads
The interplay between the Unmanned Warrior and Joint Warrior exercises was important for proving the real-world applicability of the unmanned systems and for giving operators an early look at technologies they may use down the road, some concessions had to be made due to the level of technical maturity of the systems.

There have been other challenges during the exercise, particularly when it came to interoperability between different unmanned systems. In one case, e.g., three countries brought different UUVs with the same software, but different software versions, which took quite an effort to get updated with the same software version and able to work together. Additionally, the RN designed a common command and control (C2) system to manage all the unmanned systems from all countries in all domains, but that effort did not succeed.
One craft of interest was the Blue Bear BLACKSTART fixed wing UAV, which was being used as a communications link to mission control in the C2 centres, a collection of undistinguished white ISO containers built for portability, but handling data feeds from 40 different systems at once.

One of these centres was aboard the support ship MV NORTHERN RIVER, which did double duty as the target of a “pirate attack.” WATCHKEEPER helped foil this mock attack, operating the Thales i-MASTER radar over the sea, before going on to catch a “smuggler” by following him as he drove off after collecting stolen goods from an accomplice on the beach.

The command operations module located at the British Underwater Test & Evaluation Centre (BUTEC) during Unmanned Warrior 2016 allowed for the control and tasking of unmanned vehicles from multiple suppliers using a generic workstation.

Sonars often needed targets to detect and unmanned systems provided these services as well. Saab provided the AUV62-AT, an acoustic target that replicates the active and passive signature of a submarine, delivering essential ASW simulation and training for the entire maritime force.

In addition to the flying drones, Unmanned Warrior also hosted a fleet of robotic surface boats and submersibles, including BAE Systems’ PACIFIC 950 Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) equipped with a remote control kit (ACER), thermal imaging and all-around vision.

This RIB is capable of traveling at up to 47kt for up to 12 hours at a time, and can be operated autonomously, using technology developed by BAE Systems and ASV with support from suppliers including Deep Vision and Chess Dynamics. Then there was Dstl’s Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) for evaluating new robotic technologies, and the Hydrographic Survey, which was using Sea Gliders and Wave Gliders to study the sea bottom and monitor salinity, temperature, and how these change with depth.

ASV Global has reached the landmark of 1,000 days of unmanned operations during the Unmanned Warrior event, which saw a number of ASV Global developed vehicles and systems participated in the event including converted vessels such as the PACIFIC 950 and PACIFIC 24 RIBs and the MAST. The event also showcased vehicles designed and built by ASV Global including the commercial vehicle C-WORKER 5 and Thales’ MCM demonstrator platform HALCYON.

The Halcyon USV carried the T-SAS sonar to delivers live, high-quality sonar used for ASW. In fact, the Halcyon is being developed as part of the Thales-led consortium solution for the first phase of the Anglo-French MCM programme to assess the future mine warfare capabilities of the UK and French Navies.

Thales is the system integrator for the Maritime Autonomous Platform Exploitation (MAPLE) programme, which also evaluates the C2 aspects of the system, through the Autonomous Control Exploitation and Realisation (ACER) deployed on the vessel NORTHERN RIVER, which provided a warship command surrogate platform.

During Euronaval 2016, the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) confirmed that the United Kingdom (UK) Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA) will continue their collaboration for the combined MMCM (maritime MCM) programme. Initiated in 2010 under a cooperation agreement between France and the UK, the MMCM programme develops a prototype autonomous system for detection and neutralisation of sea mines and underwater improvised explosive devices (UWIEDs). Industry partners include:Thales, BAE Systems, Saab, ECA Group, and ASV Global. For more see here.

For the minehunting challenge, actual RN minehunter ships were used as they tested Kongsberg Maritime’s REMUS 100 and REMUS 600 robotic submersibles with advanced sonar for seeking out dummy mines. In addition, REMUS are designed to be lightweight and easily customisable, so they can be quickly adapted to different tasks. In addition, the challenge tested unmanned surface minesweepers, such as the 11m Atlas Elektronik ARCIMIS, carrying the AQS-24B Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS) made by Northrop Grumman. Although the system is currently undergoing final integration, the company has already received firm orders for two ARCIMS. In the weeks that preceded the exercise, the ARCIMS received final tweaks at Portland harbour, undergoing integration testing of the AQS-24B, that included remote launch and recovery of the towed sonar at the. The AQS-24B is a towed mine hunting sensor used by the USN, features one the world’s only high-speed synthetic aperture sonars (SAR) for mine detection, localisation, and classification, and an optical laser line scan sensor for the identification mine.

Among countermeasures was the SEA WASP from Saab. This small, highly manoeuvrable waterborne counter-improvised explosive device (CIED) vehicle is remotely controlled to deliver a demolition charge close to a mine, enabling MCM operators to neutralise the target from safe distance.

The technologies and concepts having been demonstrated at Unmanned Warrior have the potential to fundamentally change the future of naval operations just as the advent of steam propulsion or submarines did for example. By working closely with a wide range of system providers from defence, industry, and academia, Unmanned Warrior has also become the catalyst for a level of discussion and participation that sets the gold standard for collaborative projects.

Unmanned Warrior 2016 provided learning opportunities for naval scientists and engineers in five mission areas (geospatial intelligence, MCM, ASW, surveillance, and C2) and also enabled operational forces to develop CONOPS (concepts of operations) for the employment of unmanned systems in real-world naval scenarios. For example, the ONR-led team not only contributed technologies to the exercise, but some of the best minds in autonomy to advance the capabilities of unmanned systems. 


Unmanned Warrior 2016 explored increasing the use of non-weaponised, unmanned and autonomous systems in delivering maritime capabilities; a large scale demonstration of marine robotic systems that not only showcased new technology, but tested the ability of unmanned vehicles to work with one another as well as with conventional naval ships. (All photos via Royal Navy)

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