Unmanned Marine Vehicles (UMV) have been used for several decades in specialized roles such as exploration, search, and recovery. Now, there is a push for integrated UMV operations with unmanned surface and aerial vehicles, as well. Naturally spearheaded by military forces, an excellent example of this integration is the U.K.’s Unmanned Warrior exercise conducted in October, 2016.
During this exercise, the emphasis was on proving a commercial/defense fusion of unmanned vehicle command and control. By utilizing a single command input to control multiple vehicles from different suppliers, the military commanders were able to benefit from a more centralized and streamlined command and control structure. The Autonomous Control Exploitation and Realisation (ACER) system was specifically designed to allow the fusion of multiple data streams from varied unmanned sources.
This integration effort is a tremendous leap for both ocean and littoral military operations. Naval ships could have a centralized command center for organic unmanned systems that would allow for monitoring of all three combat environments (subsurface, surface, and air) greatly extending the operational awareness of the commander. Aerial vehicles would provide a visual confirmation of any surface vessels approaching the naval ship and increase the decision time available to the commander for response. Weapons systems are a natural addition to the vehicles and would provide decentralized combat capability and multiply response force. Subsurface assets would less susceptible to weather conditions topside and potentially provide continuous presence. In the littoral environment, the same capabilities exist, but the addition of a counter-mine capability organic to the surface combatant would be significant enhancement to in-shore operations.
All of these technologies exist currently, albeit independently. This type of integration system is a potential game-changer for naval operations. Streamlining training requirements for operators to a single command station and providing a fused command-control picture reduces manpower and communication requirements, and provides a simplified, yet comprehensive picture of the environment around the vessel. CDR. Peter Pipkin, the Royal Navy lead for the exercise said, “Instead of each unmanned system coming with its own ground control station and its own software and potentially its own operators, this system allows to plug into a common command and control system which then for Unmanned Warrior was sitting on a proper representation of the ship’s combat management system” (Bennett, 2017). By utilizing commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) systems and overlaying them on existing ship combat systems, the door has now been opened to further development and expansion into the commercial sector, as well. While a potential life-saver for the military, this total picture capability can be expanded and applied to almost anything.
Surface vessel tracking, submarine tracking and mine detection all have analogous missions on the civilian side. Port management, fisheries/ocean mammal tracking, and search/surveying are prime examples. With multiple systems concurrently deployed, there is a potential for cost savings as the needed data may be able to be acquired more quickly. Also, data input would arrive from different vantage points, providing comparative information in each pass.
As with all fusion technology, common language standards have to be agreed upon by the asset providers and integrators. Outside of the government, the easiest way to arrive at this is to make it financially viable so that the business case drives the key players to the table. If the military takes the lead, a standard may be already established and deployment-ready, but very few things in the government happen quickly and there may have to be some reverse-engineering to remove some the military system bloat commercial industries wouldn’t require. In either case, the government and military sectors are poised to reap the benefits of a truly cooperative unmanned system and move beyond single vehicle constraints, and integrating UMVs with their surface and aerial brethren is extremely expansive.
Bennett, M. (February, 2017). Unmanned Warrior. Unmanned Systems, Volume 35 (No. 2), 32-37.