Austal USA and Saildrone Inc. announced on Tuesday they are starting a new “strategic partnership” for the former to produce Saildrone autonomous unmanned surface vehicle (USVs).

This means Austal USA’s Mobile, Ala., aluminum hull shipyard facilities will start to be the exclusive builder of Saildrone’s Surveyor unmanned vessels for the Navy and other clients.

Saildrone Surveyor unmanned surface vessel starts a mission to map unmapped seafloor between San Francisco, Calif. and Honolulu, Hawaii in 2021 (Photo: Saildrone)
Saildrone Surveyor unmanned surface vessel starts a mission to map unmapped seafloor between San Francisco and Honolulu in 2021 (Photo: Saildrone)

Austal said it will start building the first Saildrone Surveyor vehicles for the Navy in October 2022. The vessel is 65 feet long and designed for both deep ocean mapping as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions above and below the surface.

The Surveyor has an aluminum hull and the Mobile shipyard started primarily as an aluminum hull yard, notably building the aluminum hull Spearhead-class Expeditionary Fast Transport ships (EPFs) and even-numbered Independence-variant Littoral Combat Ships.

Over the last year, Austal USA has also started branching out into steel hull construction with Navy contracts to build two towing, salvage and rescue ships for the Navy last year (Defense Daily, Oct. 5, 2021) and an Auxiliary Floating Dry Dock Medium (Defense Daily, June 21).

The companies argued this partnership will allow production on the Saildrone Surveyor vessel to “accelerate to meet the rapidly growing demand” for that kind of technology. 

They also noted the Surveyor is autonomous and uncrewed, “offering extreme endurance, reliability and cost effective operations.”

“We are extremely pleased to enter into this agreement with Saildrone. It is a great fit as both of us are leaders in our respective markets and we both strive to provide leading edge solutions to the U.S. Navy,” Austal USA President Rusty Murdaugh said in a statement.

“With our lean manufacturing techniques and serial production capabilities, Austal USA will provide large scale fabrication of these vehicles and with our partner Saildrone rapidly get the capability to the Fleet,” he continued.

Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO, likewise said that in combining Saildrone’s experience in smaller USVs with Austal’s work on larger USVs, “we see these two technologies as extremely complementary. Building these two extremes of size in the same facility, and leveraging Austal’s advanced manufacturing capabilities, will dramatically accelerate our ability to get Saildrones into the hands of our customers.”

The future USS Mobile (LCS-26) rolled out of its assembly bay and was launched in early 2020. (Photo: Austal USA)
The future USS Mobile (LCS-26) rolled out of its assembly bay and was launched in early 2020 at shipyard Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. (Photo: Austal USA)

The third Overlord Unmanned Surface Vessel, Vanguard, is currently under construction at Austal’s shipyard in Mobile under prime contractor L3Harris Technologies [LHX] (Defense Daily, Aug. 24).

Austal also built the future Spearhead-class USNS Apalachicola (EPF-13) with autonomous and unmanned capabilities as part of a Navy prototyping work to demonstrate a larger ship can be fielded as a self-driving platform. The company first won a $44 million contract modification to build and demonstrate the capability on EPF-13 in 2021 (Defense Daily, June 9, 2021).

Then, last month, the Navy conducted test events to assess the autonomous capability of the ship (Defense Daily, Aug. 3).

Separately, Austal USA is one of six companies continuing to work on studies of a future Large Unmanned Surface Vessel for the Navy (Defense Daily, Aug. 5).