General Dynamics [GD] is looking at how it can gradually add more autonomy to unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), adding capability and eventually changing the mission profiles.

General Dynamics produces several UUVs: the Knifefish to detect, classify, and identify buried, bottom, and volume mines for the U.S. Navy; the Bluefin-21 that Knifefish is based on; and the Bluefin-9.

A rendering of the Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle which will be deployed from the littoral combat ship to sweep mines. (Illustration: General Dynamics)

The Bluefin-21 is 21 inches in diameter while Bluefin-9 is nine-inches in diameter. While the Knifefish is being developed for mine countermeasures missions, the Bluefin is aimed to help perform missions like offshore survey, search and salvage, and oceanography for both the government and industry. The Knifefish will be deployed from Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) as part of the mine countermeasures (MCM) mission to conduct minesweeping duties.

These UUVs are typically outfitted with low-bandwidth communications that make it hard to share real-time information, forcing the vessels to currently rely on some autonomy. Currently they can survey a given area, inspect it, profile it, then resurface and provide the data to an operator that decides on the next step.

Andy Rogers, GD Mission Systems vice president of undersea systems, told Defense Daily in an interview Monday that the the Bluefin UAVs are adaptable and modular.

“Any parameter you can think of that might apply underwater, we can actually put sensors on to look at those and measure those,” he said.

These missions can range from helping the oil and gas industry inspect pipelines, inspecting underwater communications cables, and measuring ocean current changes due to global warming.

However, Rogers is particularly excited at how GD is looking to add more autonomy to the vessels. Currently, they only act as programmed and can “mow the lawn” by surveying an area, then tell an operator what they found. They also have some obstacle avoidance and automated target recognition capabilities installed.

While most UUVs just come to the surface when they encounter an obstacle, Rogers said GD is looking at ways to add autonomy to allow the vessels to do more complicated things underwater. If they have some real, if basic, decision-making capabilities, then UUVs could start making smart decisions on their own.

For example, Rogers envisioned letting a UUV decide if it wants to take a closer look at something, change its sensor profile underwater, obtain more data, then report what it found to an operator. GD is particularly looking at leveraging the kind of autonomy being developed in cars and UAVs in particular for use underwater.

“That’s pretty exciting because there’s more we can do,” Rogers added, so letting UUVS make “smart decisions on its own is going to be really exciting. That’ll change the mission profile.”

As these pieces of autonomy increase in UUVs, the missions will evolve as the vessels can do different things.

He said the increasing autonomy will probably happen like in the autonomous vehicle industry: gradually adding features step-wise like backup cameras and collision avoidance in cars. Over the next three to five years, that step function will increase in UUVs, as with cars, and they’ll gradually add more autonomy and capability.

Separately, Rogers was bullish on the development of Knifefish for the Navy.

“I think we’re very close to limited rate production. More to come in the next three to six months but it’s going very well. I know that we’re very happy with the performance so far. And generally, I think that it’s going to be a great asset.”

General Dynamics Bluefin-21 at ANTX 2018 - 2
A General Dynamics Bluefin-21 at ANTX 2018

Rogers said while Knifefish, like Bluefin, is modular and can be reconfigured, he noted the Navy has a very specific mission package for Knifefish.

Although he could not talk about expanding Knifefish or Bluefin missions for the Navy, “there’s some good stuff happening” and GD is ready to help use their vessels for new missions.

Last month, the Navy finished shipboard integration testing of the Knifefish on board the USS Independence (LCS-2) (Defense Daily, Jan. 25).

In 2016, GD bought the UUVs’ maker, Bluefin Robotics, which was previously a subsidiary of Battelle (Defense Daily, Feb. 22, 2016). Before the purchase, GD was a partner in developing Knifefish for the Navy.

In 2017, the Navy deployed a Bluefin12D (deep) UUV as part of Undersea Rescue Command’s (URC) contribution to help find the lost Argentinian submarine the A.R.A. San Juan (S-42) in the South Atlantic (Defense Daily, Nov. 20, 2017).