Defense officials confirmed this week two more prototype unmanned surface vessels (USVs) are under construction on the Gulf Coast and will join the Navy by the end of fiscal year 2022.
These two ships will have incremental improvements over the first two Defense Department Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) Ghost Fleet Overlord USVs previously sent from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast, where Surface Development Squadron One (SURFDEVRON) in San Diego, Calif. operates.
Last month, the Pentagon said the second Overlord vessel, named Nomad, had reached the West Coast after a journey with 98 percent of the time sailing in autonomous mode. This copied the journey of the first Overlord vessel, the Ranger, in October 2020. Both USVs passed through the Panama Canal in manual mode (Defense Daily, June 7).
DoD said the Nomad’s remote mission command and control occur from the ashore Unmanned Operations Center operated by sailors from SURFDEVRON.
“So we are in fact building two additional Overlord prototypes. Those are Navy-funded prototypes and they are on schedule, under construction on slightly different timeframes, but they will both be launched and go through test and trials period in FY ‘22, such that by the end of FY ‘22 we will have transitioned both of the first two vessels from SCO to the Navy and we will take delivery of the two additional Navy funded Overlord prototypes from new construction delivery and have four in inventory by the end of FY ‘22,” Capt. Pete Small, Navy program manager for Unmanned Maritime Systems, told reporters during a press call June 13.
During the same call, Luis Molina, deputy director for the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), said this an example of the partnership between SCO and the Navy.
“We were able to utilize this program to help accelerate the Navy’s adoption of these by providing options for the Navy to fund additional vessel construction and from the perspective of the Strategic Capabilities Office, we like to view ourselves as informing requirements and we see that these vessels are an incremental step to improving on the systems that we have prototyped,” Molina said.
He noted the two Overlord vessels under construction are “not exact replicas” but incorporate lessons learned and design improvements found throughout the program thus far.
These “have helped inform a better solution set that we hope to achieve sometime here in the next six to eight months,” Molina added.
Molina and Small did not disclose the industry teams working on these prototype USVs.
“The strategic capabs office maintains a security posture with respect to our industrial base and who are specific performers working on specific programs for us because of the challenges we have in a counterintelligence environment,” Molina said.
He added SCO is trying to protect these investments from being stolen by adversaries and thus “we do not normally provide the names of our industry teams in a public release setting.”
Small added that in respect to SCO’s position, the Navy is also not revealing the industry team working on the two additional vessels, which is the same as the first two Overlord vessels.
The officials said the vessels are based on support craft built for the oil and gas industry, with modifications to be operated remotely from a ground control station on shore.
The first two Overlord vessels “were already designed for low manning and had a high degree of digital control already incorporated into the commercial design,” Small said.
He noted the base design already included placing digital control of the vessel in the pilot house for one human to operate the vessel.
“A lot of the work has been focused on connecting the threads of digital control to the autonomy and command and control infrastructure,” Small added.
He said the base vessel has hardware reliability but it was still largely human operated, so things like valve operations were converted to remote operations. Small said there are a variety of industry solutions to automate and remotely operate such systems, but it is a cost driver to add autonomy applications in all those cases.
Small also noted other things added by the government include government furnished command and control infrastructure, flexible deck structures for quick integration of new systems and potential payloads, additional sensors and radars, and creating a larger mast to hold the space for the larger set of sensors.
He underscored these were not “fundamental changes” to the vessel, but needed to accommodate new unmanned operations compared to a minimally manned oil and gas service vessel.