Defense Department officials this week said how the Navy and Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) is learning from the Ghost Fleet Overlord unmanned surface vessels (USVs) to inform future larger unmanned platforms.

Last month, DoD announced the second Overlord USV, named Nomad, sailed from the Gulf Coast where it was built to the West Coast. Similar to the journey of the first vessel in October 2020, the Ranger, Nomad sailed for 98 percent of the time in autonomous mode. The USVs passed through the Panama Canal in manual mode (Defense Daily, June 7).

For now, with two Overlord USVs operating on the West Coast, “the intent is to utilize this time period to do fleet demonstration exercises and operational vignettes to continue to demonstrate in an operational context the utility of these vessels to augment manned combatant capabilities,” Luis Molina, deputy director for the Strategic Capabilities Office, told reporters during a press call July 13.

Molina also explained the utility of testing with these vessels compared to other smaller USV testbeds. 

“One of the challenges in scaling up from a small vessel, say a 9-meter [rigid inflatable boat] to a much larger vessel is that we don’t have a lot of experience with seakeeping and open ocean. And so growing those legs to be able to do that crawl-walk-run farther from home is an important aspect of this program,” Molina said.

He added another factor of experimentation on smaller vessels is that the shipboard control systems are more complex so automating the functionality of those systems and improving the reliability to enable long range missions is important.

Molina said it is important to learn how to conduct open ocean navigation; open ocean management and path planning in accordance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972, known as COLREGS; use command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems with a longer reach; and hull, mechanical and electrical (HM&E) system complexity with an optionally autonomous vessel.

“The other thing that’s important to learn is the scalability of this approach. How many vessels can we control and how well can we do that from that supervised timely framework? And so those are all things that we hope to learn through this experimentation and demonstration with the Navy,” Molina continued.

Capt. Pete Small, Navy program manager for Unmanned Maritime Systems, also said size maters in terms of eventual vessel utility and endurance.

“The Navy’s [concepts of operations] for larger unmanned surface vessels are far forward and that inherently brings an endurance requirement to get on station and remain on station for useful periods of time. And size is required to deliver that endurance, which is again – that’s tied to reliability and HM&E complexity,” Small said.

He also noted size is important from a payload perspective.

“Without getting into details, the intent for the Navy’s USV plans are to incorporate government furnished command and control systems which don’t necessarily want to be miniaturized, specifically for unmanned operations, that want to be fleet interoperable with manned combatants and, again, government furnished I’ll say potentially program of record payload system that again are not specialized or miniaturized toward a specific unmanned application,” Small continued.

Therefore, a larger vessel inherently has a larger payload capacity, which include potentially using weapons, that DoD can experiment with these prototype USVs.

Molina noted to the payload point, SCO worked “extensively in this program to outfit these ships with excess margin and capacity to accommodate those payloads and also in modifying the shipboard deck structures to enable rapid integration of adaptable payloads in a modular sense.”

He said that from both the physical and architecture modularity standpoints, “we think that we have developed a very good testbed for future capabilities.”

Molina also said during its initial transit to the West Coast, the Nomad’s engines worked without major issues.

“Part of the demonstration and operations that we’re doing is proving out the modifications that we’ve done and stressing those systems to build that operator trust.”

The Overlord USVs are modified commercial oil and gas service vessels. They were originally designed for low manning and under this program, included modifications for unmanned and autonomous operations, which involved adding additional sensors to the mast.

The officials confirmed the same unmanned industry teams are building two more Overlord USVs for the Navy that they expect to be delivered by the end of fiscal year 2022 (Defense Daily, July 14).

At the same time, the current Overlord USVs will transition from SCO to Navy operation by January 2022. However, the officials said they expect the change to be largely seamless as both offices are already collaborating on vessel operations and testing. Molina and Small said the changeover will be more related to management leadership and who is paying for costs rather than personnel operating the vessels.

SCO and the Navy would not disclose the industry teams, but on Thursday, the Pentagon told reporters in fiscal year 2020 the Navy funded the upcoming Overlord USV prototypes numbers three and four at “approximately $40 million each.”