ST. LOUIS—Saildrone, the small designer and manufacturer of wind-propelled unmanned surface vessels (USVs), this month will launch a new vessel that it believes will meet the needs of its customers for situational awareness and mapping.
“We think Voyager is going to be that sweet spot for both shallow water mapping and that maritime domain awareness mission,” Bryan Connon, vice president of ocean mapping for the California-based company, told Defense Daily in an interview on Oct. 5.
The company’s primary USV has been the Explorer, which has been used in maritime domain awareness evaluations by the Coast Guard and Navy in the past 14 months. The Coast Guard evaluated the 23-foot vessel as part of an evaluation in the Pacific near Hawaii of unmanned surface capabilities for detecting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
The Navy evaluated the Explorer during the Rim of the Pacific 2020 international maritime exercise around the Hawaiian Islands “in sort of a picket line” application to image vessels on the surface and report back to a command center, Connon said here during the GEOINT 2021 Symposium.
Following its evaluation of Explorer and a 23-foot aluminum rigid inflatable boat leased from MetalCraft Marine and integrated with an autonomy package supplied by Spatial Integrated Solutions (SIS), the Coast Guard said a key lesson is the need for more onboard intelligence and machine learning to speed processing and narrow data transfer to actionable information. Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] has since acquired the autonomy business of SIS.
The Explorer, as will the Voyager, includes a radar, camera system, automatic identification system receiver, and related computer and communications equipment to provide persistent surveillance. The camera system has an onboard machine learning algorithm that enables the identification of ships, icebergs, birds and other objects, Connon said.
The company has taken “hundreds of millions of images” with Explorer at sea to train its algorithm over five years, he said.
The machine learning algorithm will improve over time for identifying specific vessels but to get at customers’ demands more quickly for better fidelity regarding the type of ship a Saildrone USV detects, the company is working on an acoustic sensing capability that will allow users know if ship that is detected is a cargo vessel, a fishing boat, or a go-fast, Richard Jenkins, founder and CEO of Saildrone, said during the interview.
Saildrone expects the acoustic sensing capability to be ready in 2022, Jenkins said.
He also said that most of the boats that Saildrone encounters in the oceans don’t have AIS turned on, which is an indicator that they are engaged in potentially illegal activities.
Connon said that the Coast Guard also would like USVs to be able to communicate with one another, adding that the company is exploring a mesh network capability to allow for drones to communicate with one another and not rely on communications satellites.
In addition to the Coast Guard and Navy, the company is also discussing with Customs and Border Protection for applying USVs for drug and migrant interdiction and other maritime domain awareness missions in the sea zones near the border but beyond the range of land-based sensor systems to detect illicit activity.
Voyager will provide more capability than Explorer. The new USV is expected to enter production in the first quarter of 2022 following sea trials of the first two vessels. The first Voyager model will be baselined for the maritime domain awareness mission and the second for bathymetry missions.
Voyager will be 33-feet long and feature a 21-foot-tall wing versus the 15-foot wing on Explorer. This will allow the camera on Voyager to see about 10-12 miles versus 8 to 10 for Explorer, Connon said.
Voyager will also feature a diesel engine, which will propel the USV during a calm and can charge the batteries on the vessel used to power the sensors and computing systems. The Voyager, like the Explorer, will also have solar panels and a hydro-generator to provide system power.
Explorer can patrol for a year and is the first autonomous vehicle to circumnavigate the Southern Ocean, sailing nearly 14,000 miles in 196 days while battling 50-foot waves, 80 mph winds, and freezing temperatures, the company says.
Voyager will be to patrol for months at a time but the diesel engine will require refueling, Connon said.
Jenkins said Saildrone is asking its potential maritime domain awareness customers for the requirements documents for their mission needs because once Voyager is in production, the company believes the USV will be ready to meet those needs.
Saildrone’s business model is providing its USVs in mission-as-a-service model. The Coast Guard and Navy already employ contractor-owned and operated unmanned aircraft systems aboard some of their ships so it is a business model they are familiar with.
Saildrone also provides the 72-foot Surveyor drone for keep ocean mapping. The company has one Surveyor, which can map to depths of 7,000 meters. A second version of the vessel is in development and two additional Surveyors are expected to be ready by the end of 2022.