Underwater Robots: Will the Pentagon Miss the Boat?




“The Defense Department has made significant investments in underwater vehicle designs and prototypes.

But it has not funded  larger numbers for testing and experimentation.

Top defense contractors have jumped into the race to develop autonomous mini-submarines for the U.S. military. As the Pentagon makes it increasingly clear that unmanned technology will be a linchpin of future warfare, contractors have taken the plunge, partnered with or acquired commercial firms in this sector in hopes of capturing future Defense Department contracts.

There is a flaw in the plan, however, warns retired Navy Rear Adm. Fred Byus. The Pentagon has taken initial steps to “steer investments” in autonomous technology but is not moving fast enough to increase production of robots so they can be made available to large numbers of users for testing and experimentation.

The technology to produce autonomous underwater vehicles is ready to transition from the lab to the fleet, says Byus, who is general manager of mission and defense technologies at Battelle. He contends that if the Pentagon continues to buy vehicles only in onesies and twosies, the technology is at risk of getting stuck in limbo, will remain unfamiliar to most potential users and will produce prototypes that are too expensive to be accessible across the military.

Undersea drones are one area of warfare where the United States has the opportunity to gain a big technological edge over potential adversaries, Byus says. Leaps in innovation have occurred both in the defense and commercial markets but the Pentagon may not be able to take advantage of the advanced technology because of its internal approaches to acquisitions, he adds. “You have to have processes that keep up with technology.” With robotics, it is important to “get the technology into the hands of the war fighters as widely as possible.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been a proponent of unmanned undersea systems. He said in February that the Pentagon would invest $600 million over the next five years in “variable size and variable payload unmanned undersea vehicles.” Carter described a vision of networked “distributed” drones that would give naval forces unprecedented capabilities to collect intelligence.

Despite this high-level endorsement, the Defense Department’s acquisition organizations are not moving quickly to push the technology forward and start building prototypes in sufficiently large numbers, Byus says. Talking about the promise of robotics alone is not enough unless there is “parallel development of tactics” for the use of the technology, and incentives for vendors to produce more systems at lower prices.

The Navy this month solicited a “request for information” from contractors, asking for proposals on how existing unmanned undersea vehicles could be adapted for military use. Under a project called “extra large unmanned undersea vehicle,” the Naval Sea Systems Command wants to conduct experiments to develop tactics and concept of operations.

Contractors like Battelle, General Dynamics and Boeing Phantom Works have made big bets on commercial robots they believe are suitable for military use and cheaper than anything the Pentagon could ever invent.

Byus worries that the Defense Department’s plan to tap commercial technology may fall short because it is mostly focused on niche experiments that will not create a demand for vehicles and therefore not motivate the industry to keep investing. “The autonomous systems industrial base is not in place to support large scale employment of the technology,” he says. “They need to be thinking about that.” Underwater submarines, for instance, have not been made in big enough numbers so units across the Navy can test them, he says, nor is there enough work to support the development of the autonomous underwater vehicle industrial base.

Companies in this sector continue to hedge their bets. Battelle moved to acquire SeeByte Inc., a software developer that specializes in autonomous undersea vehicles and sensors. One of the industry’s best known players, Bluefin Robotics was taken over by Battelle in 2005, and earlier this year was acquired by General Dynamics Mission Systems.

A major Navy ship builder, Huntington Ingalls Industries, has produced the Proteus underwater vehicle in a partnership with Battelle. It is a dual-mode system that can be driven by a pilot or operated autonomously. The vehicle was designed by the Columbia Group’s Engineering Solutions Division. Huntington Ingalls acquired ESD two years ago and renamed it the Undersea Solutions Group.

Commercial companies that have developed underwater robots are now feeling the pinch of the downturn in the oil and gas industries. This creates an opportunity for the Pentagon to play a more prominent role as a customer of this technology, Byus says. “Underwater technology development is under the same type of financial constraints on the commercial side that it has seen with the downturn in R&D on the government side.”

The military needs to step up the integration of unmanned systems into the force because it can’t afford the rising costs of people, he says, and needs to “relieve war fighters from dull dirty and dangerous work that autonomous systems are capable of doing.” With underwater submarines, the military could deploy a network of robots to keep eyes on potential enemies, for example.

“It will take some progressive thinkers in the Defense Department to say, ‘For this industrial base to be in place when we need it, we need to kick start the commercial applications as well as the government applications.’” A cautionary tale is found in the ship-building industry, where there are so few suppliers that prices continue to soar, forcing the Navy to buy fewer platforms — a downward cycle known in the Pentagon as the procurement “death spiral.”

The Pentagon also would benefit from better outreach to commercial companies so it can learn what innovations are being acquired by other countries, some of which are potential future adversaries. “You need a well coordinated program of commercial and government investment,” Byus says. “With only commercial development, you’ll have technological parity. If it’s all government funded, there is a risk that you end up with an industrial base and systems that are very expensive, which increases the cost of systems and the challenge of getting them into the hands of users.”


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