• Bluebottle USV arrives in New Zealand.
Credit: Tim Fish
    Bluebottle USV arrives in New Zealand. Credit: Tim Fish

A new variant of the Bluebottle Uncrewed Surface Vehicle (USV) has been delivered to the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN).

The USV is being leased from Australian manufacturer Ocius Technologies for a period of seven months through to the end of June 2024 to allow the RNZN to conduct a testing and trials programme.

Named Bellona, the Bluebottle USV will operated by the RNZN’s diving and hydrography unit, HMNZS Matataua, located at the navy’s base in Devonport. Matataua already has experience operating the REMUS 100 and 300 Uncrewed Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and the T12 Mantas USV from Martac Systems.

According to Commander Andy Bryant, autonomous systems staff officer with the RNZN and project manager for the USV, the Bluebottle is a “step-up” from its earlier uncrewed systems in terms of range and endurance.

He told ADM that following the securing of regulatory approval for its use, Bellona will be employed firstly in the waters near Auckland and then from New Zealand’s north and eastern coastlines before being sent to the Southern Ocean.

The 6.8 metre long USV uses renewable solar, wave and wind power to operate at a top speed of five knots in conditions up to sea state seven, which can include wave heights of 6-9 metres. It is fitted with a Simrad radar and FLIR electro-optical/infrared PTZ camera that can provide 30x zoom and 360° coverage.

During these deployments, using the Bluebottle will help the RNZN to identify how to best operate uncrewed systems of this size and scale and their future utility in the service and the capabilities USVs can provide.

The Bluebottle deployments will also help the RNZN develop a concept of operations for USV use and inform the initiation of a training pathway for operators and support staff as well as how to cooperate with other government agencies. The utility of the Bluebottle USV means that it can assist with coastal surveillance, fisheries patrols and monitoring marine protected areas.

Bryant said “there is not clear funded articulated requirement” for larger-scale uncrewed systems, but using the Bluebottle will help inform the NZDF the best path to take in the future.

Five operators and a senior watch officer have been trained in Australia by Ocius to monitor and control the USV with a new operations room to be established at HMNZS Matataua by early January 2024, in time for Bellona’s first deployment in February.

The operations room – nicknamed MUSSEL – will have workstations with heads up displays to allow Bellona USV operations to be observed 24/7. Usual watch periods in the RNZN are four hours, but because Bluebottle is autonomous and officers will be shore-based in an office, Matataua will start trials of a new 6-hour watch system.

Sub Lieutenant Liam Von Etten, one of the operators, explained that training with Ocius consisted of learning the human machine interfaces for operating the USV, followed by a course in maintenance and launch and recovery operations.

Bellona was lifted by crane on and off the RNZN’s tanker HMNZS Aotearoa for transportation from Australia to New Zealand in early December.

Von Etten said that following deployment to and from the shore, for the Southern Ocean deployment it is planned to put Bellona on board a RNZN ship for launching into the sea and to return home under its own power. This will require two crew to be located onboard to carry out the launch and recovery operation and provide forward logistics support.

The Bellona is a new variant of the Bluebottle that has been modified for operations in the Southern Ocean. The USV can use a new storm sail around half the size of the standard sail. The high winds experienced south of ‘roaring 40s’ at 40° South or ‘screaming 60s’ at 60° South mean that a reduced sail is needed to retain stability of the craft, although if winds exceed 30-35 knots then it will automatically fold away.

Bellona also has a keel extension and adapted flipper rudder as well as extra batteries. It is fitted with a vertical axis wind generator that can provide 160 watts of power when winds are 40 knots.

Bryant said that there are no current plans for the USV beyond June 2024 so Bellona will be handed back to Ocius. However, he added that future options are yet to be decided, and the RNZN lease could be extended depending on how the trial period progresses.

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