The Navy awarded Austal USA a $44 million contract modification on June 7 to build and demonstrate autonomous capability in the future expeditionary fast transport ship USNS

Apalachicola (EPF-13).

The award covers the detail design, procurement, production implementation and demonstration of autonomous capability. 

The work will largely occur at the company’s shipyard in Mobile, Ala. (60 percent) and is expected to be finished by July 2022.

Of the contract amount, $22 million in fiscal year 2021 Navy shipbuilding cost-to-complete funding was obligated at the time of award and will not expire at the end of this fiscal year.

In a statement, Austal noted enhancements to EPF-13 will allow the ship to operate autonomously but also retain the capability for manned operation. 

This includes “installation of a perception and autonomy control suite, as well as several automation enhancements to the machinery plant improving hull, mechanical, and electrical (HM&E) reliability while reducing the amount of personnel required for operations and maintenance at sea.”

Austal said it originally designed the EPF with a “highly automated” machinery plant that only requires a small team to crew the ship in order to reduce cost and centralize ship operations at the bridge.

In 2019, the Navy awarded the company a $262 million modification for the detail design and construction of EPF-13 and 14, definitizing and subsuming previously awarded long lead-time material and undefinitized contract actions (Defense Daily, March 27, 2019).

In 2018, the Navy awarded Austal a $58 million undefinitized contract action for long-lead-time material and production engineering for EPF-13. At the time, the service said that work would be finished by November 2021 (Defense Daily, Oct. 19, 2018).

“The evolution of this platform and its deployed performance from humanitarian assistance to operational support brings unmatched value to the warfighter.  The potential of the EPF to operate unmanned opens the door to a range of new missions for the EPF ranging from logistics support to mine warfare and strike operations using vertical launch systems,” Austal USA Interim President Rusty Murdaugh said in a statement.

Austal Limited CEO Paddy Gregg underscored this as a significant step in the company building autonomous vessel capability.

“Austal noted in our half year results presentation that the funding for an autonomous EPF conversion contract had been appropriated in the USA Government 2021 Budget, so we are pleased that it has now been converted into a formal contract,” Gregg said.

Gregg said while the company welcomes the $44 million contact form a revenue perspective, “strategically this contract award is even more significant for Austal.”

He added that “Autonomous vessel capability has been identified as an area of strategic importance by the U.S. Navy, so it is promising for Austal that the U.S. Navy has awarded Austal USA a contract for the design, procurement, production implementation and demonstration of autonomous capability of one of our vessels.

Austal USA is currently building the future USNS Apalachicola and USNS Cody (EPF-14) in Mobile with a third vessel on contract awaiting start of construction.