Unmanned minesweeper prepares for operational tests

The Navy is moving closer to being able to deploy robot boats from its littoral combat ships to do the dangerous work of detecting and clearing minefields in shallow coastal waters. They will join the sea service’s growing family of unmanned undersea and airborne platforms already operating in the field.

In 2018, the Navy will begin operational evaluation trials of the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle, or CUSV. The craft is part of the service’s Unmanned Influence Sweep System, or UISS, program to develop robot minesweepers and mine countermeasures craft. As part of the minesweeping mission, the Navy recently awarded the CUSV’s manufacturer, Textron Systems, a $14.8 million contract for two additional craft to perform mine countermeasures missions. UISS is also the Navy’s only current program of record for unmanned surface vessels, Howard Berkoff, deputy program manager for the Navy's Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office told C4ISRNET while speaking at a recent industry event.

A key part of UISS is to expand the littoral combat ship’s operational capabilities in coastal waters. Berkoff said that the LCS was the first Navy warship intentionally designed to operate a variety unmanned craft. This includes unmanned surface craft like the CUSV, undersea craft and airborne platforms such as the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter.

"The unmanned systems are the keys to success for the LCS," he said.

Mine warfare is an important and growing consideration because the Navy is retiring legacy mine-hunting capabilities such as its wooden-hulled minesweepers and replacing them with sophisticated unmanned and automated systems. The Navy plans to use a family of systems for this mission, and one of them is the UISS, which the CUSV is a part of.

"The future is LCS, the MCS [mine counter measure] mission package and its unmanned systems. The concept is to keep the ship and the sailors out of the minefield, and to enable these unmanned systems to find, identify and clear mines," noted Berkoff.

Awarded the UISS program in 2014, Textron’s strategy was to provide the Navy with a flexible unmanned surface vehicle that could meet the service’s mine countermeasures requirements and grow into other types of missions as they became available, said Wayne Prender, Textron’s senior vice president for control and surface systems. He explained that the Navy defines mine countermeasures into three mission sets:

  • Minesweeping — entering a known minefield and physically trying to detonate mines to clear a shipping lane.
  • Mine hunting — searching an area for mines, usually with a towed sonar array.
  • Mine neutralization —  disarming or detonating mines.

The CUSV is a 38.5-foot long unmanned boat based with a large central cargo bay capable of holding a variety of sensor and equipment payloads. The craft is built around an open architecture to maximize the interoperability of its mechanical, electrical and software components. This allows the quick installation and swapping of mission modules and other components. Prender noted that this flexibility also opens the craft to future missions, such as antisubmarine warfare; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and lethal or nonlethal combat operations.

Designed to support the LCS’s mine countermeasures mission, the CUSV will deploy a variety of minesweeping and minehunting systems. Minesweeping systems include a specialized cable that generates a magnetic and electrical field in the water it is towed through. Working with an acoustic generator the cable is designed to trigger a variety of acoustic, magnetic and electromagnetic mines. The CUSV’s mine hunting/detection payloads will be the AQ-20 and AQ-24 towed sonar systems, both of which are in active service with the Navy.

The CUSV is powered by two Cummins diesel engines capable of propelling the craft over 30 knots and up to 20 or 25 knots for towing missions. This power lets the craft perform high-speed mine and sonar sweeps, allowing it to rapidly clear a minefield — one of the CUSV’s biggest advantages, Prender said. This power permits the craft to operate in high sea states, up to sea state five (waved up to 13 feet high) in a limited capacity. But he notes that it can only be safely recovered by an LCS up to sea state three (waves up to four feet high).

On-board sensors include radar and cameras with day and night vision capabilities. The sensors also work with a built-in collision detection and collision avoidance systems. Prender explained that the system alerts operators to a potential collision and provides options to avoid it. Textron is working on more automated collision avoidance processes, but he added that the Navy program requires a human in the loop to make the final decision.

The CUSV can also navigate by waypoints. Prender noted that Textron applied techniques it developed from its decades of unmanned aircraft work to the MCUSV. If the craft loses GPS or radio contact with the mother ship, it can perform a variety of contingency actions, from stopping to heading to a pickup point for recovery.

The MCUSV is controlled from a command station aboard the LCS. It can run pre-programmed missions or carry out dynamic, changing mission scenarios, Prender said. Command and control is maintained via a line of sight data link. The Navy has also integrated the LCS communications system and the Multi Vehicle Communication System aboard the craft.

In its current mission configuration, the CUSV is being evaluated for use with a variety of detection and sweeping payloads. This includes the AQS-20 and AQS-24 minehunting sonar systems that will fit into the craft’s payload bay. These payloads can be quickly swapped out ashore or at sea aboard an LCS.

"We’re building a common truck — an MCM USV [mine countermeasures unmanned surface vehicle] truck that’s capable of deploying multiple payloads for multiple types of missions," said Berkoff. MCM USV is the Navy’s designation for the CUSV’s expanded mission role for the LCS.

Because the CUSV is designed as a "truck" capable of handling a variety of payloads, its mission can extend beyond minehunting. For example, it may be possible to install anti-submarine warfare capabilities, or electronic warfare/signals intelligence gathering systems onto the craft. Although there is no current program of record addressing these needs, "once we can prove that this truck can do modular and multiple payloads, I’m pretty confident that a host of other fleet users will be coming along and asking for additional capabilities and missions," Berkoff said.

The CUSV/UISS program will transition to operational testing and assessment in 2017 and 2018 with a Milestone C set for the third quarter of fiscal 2018, Berkoff explained. As the craft goes through its assessment process, additional payloads will be added as it passes its goals. He noted that these payloads are mature programs or record, such as the AQS-20 and AQS-24 towed sonar systems. These and other Navy surface unmanned craft programs will feed their developments into the service’s future unmanned surface vessel/combatant program, he said.

Textron’s craft is currently undergoing integration and tests and will soon move to builder’s trials. This phase is scheduled to be complete toward the end of 2017 when the craft is delivered to the Navy. In addition to this initial work, Textron was awarded funds for two more CUSVs to be delivered in 2018. These additional craft will not only carry out unmanned minesweeping but also run mine hunting missions, Prender said. In 2018, the Navy will put the CUSV through operational evaluation testing with military personnel operating the craft. This will lead to a Milestone C decision sometime in the third quarter of 2018.

Unmanned platforms have made major strides in capability and endurance over the last decade, Berkoff said. The Navy views these systems as a much-needed fleet multiplier capability that also allows it to reach parts of the planet that are too inaccessible or dangerous to go with expensive manned platforms.

"That’s where these USVs and [unmanned undersea vehicles] are going to be a game-changer for our Navy," he explained.

To reach this goal, Berkoff added that the service is taking an incremental approach to developing and deploying systems. An important part of this process is an accelerated acquisition process to rapidly field and test existing technologies and prototypes, collect feedback and build on it, he says. "If we don’t incorporate on those lessons learned, then we’ll fail," he says.

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