The RAN is acquiring five Bluebottle uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) to enhance its ability to experiment and advance the operational employment of uncrewed systems under, on and above the water.
Disclosing that a $4.9 million contract with Sydney-based Ocius Technologies had been signed on 24 November, Rear Admiral Peter Quinn, Head of Navy Capability, stated the following day that the agreement represented a significant investment in sovereign industry capability to advance the ability of the RAN in effectively employing robotic and autonomous systems.
“We have vast areas that we need to patrol which we can’t do with a small number of crewed ships. We have to and will be investing in uncrewed platforms that will be out there persistently conducting surveillance,” he said.
The 22ft solar, wind and wave-powered Bluebottles would be used in developing new uncrewed underwater systems technology, and as test beds for above-water and low-water surveillance and a broad range of other technologies being sponsored by the RAN via the Defence Innovation Hub.
“And what we’ve found by putting technologies like the Ocius vessels in the hands of our sailors, soldiers and airmen, is they’re producing results and outcomes that I don’t think we really expected,” RADM Quinn commented.
Ocius Chief Executive Robert Dane told ADM that all five vessels, being built by Van Munster Boats in Morisset, NSW, would be delivered to the RAN by June 2023. They would be based on the east coast, though where had yet to be disclosed, on a government-owned, contractor operated basis. Their configuration was a matter for the RAN.
Four Bluebottles under contract to the Australian Border Force (ABF) and equipped with 360-degree day/night infrared cameras, radar and satellite communications had recently successfully completed nearly 23,000 nautical miles of unescorted maritime surveillance patrols off Western Australia he noted. A new Border Force contract was currently under discussion.
Two other Bluebottles were currently at Christmas Island on an undisclosed mission, having been flown there in an RAAF C-17A Globemaster, Dane disclosed. Two others were contracted to Parks Australia in early 2023 and a third was currently being outfitted by Perth company Guardian Geomatics for several months of hydrographic work in Japan in 2023 – Ocius’ first civil contract.
The first two of the five future Bluebottles will participate in the RAN’s Exercise Autonomous Warrior 2023, now disclosed to be taking place at Jervis Bay in March. Subsequent deliveries will take place in April, May and June.
This latest iteration of Autonomous Warrior will also involve two Bluebottles – Bara and Bombora – fitted respectively with Thales Australia thin line fibre optic passive and active towed sonar arrays for anti-submarine warfare and surveillance missions. Both boats were named at an event at Ocius headquarters in Randwick on 25 November, happily coinciding with signature of the RAN contract the previous day.
The winch cassette that carries the sonar array goes into the vessel’s keel and displaces water so boat displacement or trim is not affected whether or not the array is deployed.
Meanwhile remote control of the Bluebottles off Western Australia was undertaken in late November by Ocius personnel in Bahrain utilising the US Navy’s Common Control System as part of exercises off Qatar headed by the USN’s Task Force 59.
The Task Force was established in September 2021 to rapidly integrated uncrewed systems and artificial intelligence with maritime operations in the US 5th Fleet’s area of operations covering the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian ocean. Task Force personnel took part in Autonomous Warrior 2022.
Remote control of the same Bluebottles was also successfully exercised from Portugal in September during NATO exercise REPMUS-22, utilising the UK’s MARPLE information architecture and QUASAR common control system.