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Unmanned Systems’ Future Lies in Autonomy

Smart autonomous systems will leverage brains over brawn

While this conundrum is a challenge for all the military services, it is perhaps most challenging for the Navy. While most of the support needs of UxS operators for those systems operated from a land base are met “off the books,” every UxS operator aboard a Navy ship must be looked after. Each person has a bunk, must be fed, and generates administrative and overhead requirements, all of which add weight and space and more often more personnel to these ships. In last generation’s Navy with ships with robust manning, there was some flexibility to somehow make this all work. But with today’s – and especially tomorrow’s – optimally manned ships, the manpower challenge is especially acute.

The Navy “gets it.” Recognizing that one of the primary missions of autonomous systems is their role as information-gatherers, as part of the reorganization of the Navy staff, the Navy put responsibility and stewardship for autonomous systems under the Information Dominance directorate as part of the Navy’s effort to make information a weapon.

Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen recently articulated the Navy’s vision for the future of autonomous systems when he noted, “Some type of autonomous analysis needs to take place on the vehicle if we hope to sever the constant link between platform and operator,” signaling the Navy’s realization that increasing investment in C4ISR for unmanned systems to make them truly autonomous may hold the answer to UxS affordability and be the sustainable way ahead for Navy UxS.

DoD’s “Unmanned Systems Roadmap” is emphatic that the department must “achieve greater interoperability among systems controls, communications, data products, data links, and payloads/mission equipment packages on unmanned systems including tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination.” This transformation also requires significant increases in the autonomy of autonomous systems. For the Navy, the full potential to have autonomous aerial and maritime systems reduce overall TOC for Navy ships will not be realized without the concurrent development of C4 technology that enables these unmanned systems to not only communicate with and be tasked by their operators but, importantly, to communicate and self-synchronize with each other.


An Affordable UAS Future: “Brains Trump Brawn”

Unmanned systems do have the potential to create strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago – and that promise can be realized with substantial improvements in the C4ISR systems that will allow these systems to achieve true autonomy. The Navy laboratory community is embarked on leading-edge research to address this challenge. Some of the most cutting-edge work in this area includes:

UCAS-D gear up

Northrop Grumman’s UCAS-D demonstrator on its first flight with landing gear retracted. UCAS-D is intended to demonstrate autonomous operations, ranging from carrier landings and autonomous refueling to operating in a swarm. Northrop Grumman photo

UVSentry: The “unmanned vehicle Sentry” project is a joint developmental effort between the Office of Naval Research and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. This program enables cooperative autonomy and autonomous command and control of UxS. This, in turn, allows for automated data fusion into a common operational picture. Thus, a constellation of unmanned systems with increased intelligence and the ability to adaptively collect and process sensor data into actionable information operates in a self-synchronized manner without having many operators provide constant input and direction to large numbers of autonomous vehicles.

JUDIE: The Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Digital Information Exchange (JUDIE) is a project designed to enable UAS information exchange as an initial step in enabling UAS to self-synchronize and ultimately work as swarms. It is an interservice project involving all the military branches and is using the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-7 Shadow UAS as test platforms. Testing began at four locations in 2011 and will continue throughout 2012.

MOCU: The Multi-Robot Operator Control Unit (MOCU) is an autonomous systems project that allows one operator to control multiple systems in order to reduce manning costs. Under the stewardship of scientists and engineers at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, MOCU is a graphical operator-control software package that allows simultaneous control of multiple unmanned systems from a single console. Given the severely proscribed manning profile for Navy ships like the DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers and the LCS, MOCU is envisioned to be a strong enabler on board these – as well as future – Navy surface combatants.

UCAS-D: The Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) takes advantage of emerging technology to enable autonomous unmanned vehicles to operate in a swarm. Under the evolving UCAS-D concept of operations, this swarm of UCAS-Ds would be tasked as one unit with a mission objective and once the human operator selected a mission and communicated that to the swarm as a unit, the individual vehicles would then communicate and self-synchronize among themselves to formulate and carry out a mission plan.

Cutting-edge science and technology and research and development efforts such as these must be applied to autonomous aerial and maritime vehicles deployed from naval ships as a matter of priority in order to reduce the extent of human operators’ engagement in direct, manual control of autonomous vehicles and thus the number of UxS operators who must be embarked on those Navy ships. Clearly, this is the only way to make autonomous systems more affordable than the manned systems they replace throughout the fleet. If the Navy fails to do this, it may encounter the same pernicious cycle as occurred when DASH failed so dramatically a half-century ago, but this time, it will be with technologically marvelous systems that are rendered unaffordable because of their manpower-heavy footprint.


The Way Ahead

The future for autonomous vehicles is virtually unlimited. Indeed, concepts for new missions, such as using autonomous aerial vehicles to detect approaching ballistic missiles, are being generated by visionaries who have seized on the enormous potential of these systems. But while their ability to deliver revolutionary change to the “Navy After Next” is real, this process is not without challenges.

This vision must be supported by both a commitment of the top levels of naval leadership and also by leadership and stewardship at the programmatic level – from acquisition professionals to requirements officers, to scientists and engineers in the Navy and industry imagining, designing, developing, modeling, testing, and fielding these systems. If the Navy does this well, autonomous vehicles will continue to change the tactics of today’s Navy, the operational concepts of tomorrow’s Navy, and will usher in a strategic shift for the “Navy After Next.”

This article was first published in Defense: Winter 2012 Review Edition.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...