Think of Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, the head of the Navy’s new N99 directorate for unmanned systems, as the service’s rapid development pioneer for robots, drones and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

MQ-4C Triton during test flights in California. Photo: Northrop Grumman
MQ-4C Triton during test flights in California. Photo: Northrop Grumman

Through prototyping and fleet experimentation, Girrier wants to quicken the pace of development and ensure the end user is getting what needs, he told reporters on Friday. One of the goals of N99 is to connect sailors and Marines with innovative new unmanned systems that haven’t yet made it to Milestone B, the point where engineering and manufacturing development usually begins.

“This rapid development cycle is about introducing innovative unmanned system technologies to the fleet. We’re going to take it from warfighting requirements to prototyping to demonstrating to development. We’ll make recommendations about acquiring [systems],” he said. “Even before that…we can demonstrate these things in a rapid fashion, inside a two-year cycle.”

The Navy has done all of this before, he noted, what’s new is that N99 will connect all of the stakeholders together. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced  that the service was taking two actions to better streamline unmanned system development efforts and improve integration of those systems in operations: the stand up of the N99 directorate and  naming of a new deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems.

N99 has already solicited input from the fleet about capability gaps that could potentially be filled by a robot, UUV or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), Girrier said. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems Frank Kelley and John Burrow, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation, issued similar queries to the naval research and science and technology communities, seeking out potential technologies.

“These inputs are in the process of coming back to us, and we’re going to crunch them together… and find the best matches,” Girrier said. Finally, those “rapid demonstration teams” will conduct testing ashore or at sea.

The most important thing is the iterative nature of prototyping, which will help prevent the services from going forward with acquisition if more risk reduction is necessary, said Kelley.

“It’s not a linear process,” he said. “It will get caught into this iterative cycle until [Girrier is] satisfied for the fleet to start experimenting with it and to start providing their input for what the next changes should be.”

After a demonstration, the N99 directorate will recommend acquiring a technology, refine it, or maybe dropping it altogether if it didn’t work out as planned, Girrier said. “That’s okay. In fact, that’s a feature of this. It’s okay to fail as long as we fail fast.”

The Navy has used this kind of model in the past, he added. The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D), a surveillance UAV developed for a six-month demonstration, has been flown by the service for more than six years. BAMS-D will also form the backbone for the MQ-4C Triton program of record, which will be built by Northrop Grumman [NOC].

“Does this help reduce risk in other programs like Triton? Of course it does,” he said.  But it adds capability to the fleet even though it’s still only a demonstrator.