By Geoff Fein

Unmanned surface and underwater systems pose a number of challenges, everything from how to keep the platforms on station for extended periods of time to bringing on more sophisticated payloads, but whatever approach the Navy pursues, the service is being careful not to rush development, according to a Navy official.

“What we have found is that while there are some technologies that are more mature than others, in general, it’s not a technology challenge,” Capt. Paul Siegrist, program manager unmanned maritime vehicle systems (PMS-403), told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

“The technologies are there, the challenges are manageable,” he added. “However, if we push the envelope too quickly in putting those technologies together because of the challenges in systems engineering and systems integration, you start pushing cost and schedule such that it can become unmanageable.”

The Navy has taken a hard look at where it has been and where it needs to go, Siegrist said.

“Certainly energy and payload are one of the differences when you start considering commercial applications or academic applications,” he added. “When we start getting into military applications, you need the extra payload and energy in order to remove the frequent host platform interactions to free the host platform up.”

The Navy is looking for larger volume in unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). “In general, volume is payload and energy, and that’s one of the primary drivers in us moving from the previous focus on 21-inch UUVs, which were defined in the ’04 master plan, into large diameter UUVs,” Siegrist said.

The focus on 21-inch UUVs was because that was the primary interface for submarines, he explained.

“But with the large tubes both on SSGNs and Virginia, that gives us the capability to move into a larger form factor…improved energy,” Siegrist said.

In the specifics of energy, there are a number of technologies being developed. Along with advances in battery technology, there are other future technologies, he added.

“Clearly, we are very interested in advances in energy in order to allow that vehicle to be on station longer,” Siegrist said.

And having a UUV with more power results in having a payload that can take and gather more information in whatever the mission is for the warfighters, he added. “That has led us to move down the field into a larger diameter vehicle.”

Unlike their counterparts in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) arena, UUVs and unmanned surface vehicles (USV) are mostly in the testing phase, Siegrist said.

“Some systems we have in the hands of users that we use in exercises, [such as] the in-shore mine warfare type vehicles and oceanographic-type vehicles,” he said. “So there are some applications in which we are getting feedback.

“What we have not done is mainstream the vehicles into our submarine and surface ship forces where we start getting that feedback that [Naval Air Systems Command] is getting for UAVs,” Siegrist said. “Within the unmanned systems realm, I would say UAVs are ahead of us by a decade to a decade and a half. I’d like to be to the point where they are rapidly, but quite frankly, the fact of the matter is we are taking a hard look at how we move forward so that we do it in manageable and intelligent manner and start to get feedback from the fleet.”

In the sensors realm, there are a number of technologies, above water and underwater sensors, vehicle sensors for control and monitoring the vehicles in both surface and underwater vehicles that are being pursued or considered, Siegrist said.

“My objective right now is to take the vehicles that I’ve got, specifically the vehicles for LCS, and get them into the hands of warfighters,” he said.

“This gets back to what feedback we get. We have vehicles for LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) on both the ASW (anti-submarine warfare) MCM (mine countermeasure) side that were in engineering development models…production models,” Siegrist added. “So we want to get them in the hands of sailors and get feedback from them and then determine how best to proceed forward to enhance further unmanned capabilities in that platform.”

As for payloads, Siegrist said whether it’s sonar or cameras, or any other sensor the Navy might want to put on board a UUV, there is sufficient technology out there so that the Navy doesn’t have to look for a silver bullet. “It’s going to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. We have to evolve it, but we have to get it into the hands of warfighters and let them tell us how they need us to change things to evolve.”