The Royal Australian Navy has been active in the trusted autonomous systems space for more than 30 years and today it operates a mixed fleet of underwater vehicles – unmanned and autonomous – for mine countermeasures (MCM) and maritime rapid environmental assessment (REA) tasks.
Unmanned and Autonomous vehicles are intended to enhance maritime capability without completely replacing human beings and there has been something of a quiet revolution over the last few years in the tasks they are able to perform.
In particular, the use of unmanned or autonomous underwater vehicles for the MCM and REA roles are the result of extensive trials undertaken in Australia and around the world and represent a breakthrough in the use of such systems, which have up until recently been used for more traditional tasks, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
Looking towards the near future, there will be an unmanned and autonomous component to all of the platforms being acquired through the Government’s continuous naval strategy and Navy, together with DST Group, is in the vanguard of research, development and operational testing of a range of new technologies which have the potential to change the way maritime operations are conducted. With this in mind, both the new Hunter class frigates and Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) have dedicated spaces to accommodate such systems.
One of the major events in this regard will be Autonomous Warrior 2018, a ‘Five Eyes’ activity to be held in Jervis Bay in November and which combine trials with an industry demonstration and an exercise focussed on littoral operations.
Unlike some of Australia’s allies, the terms unmanned and autonomous mean different things. In the Navy context, ‘unmanned’ (or ‘uninhabited’ in some aviation circles) is a system which is always under the full control of a human operator. Examples of this include an unmanned aerial system (UAS) such as Insitu ScanEagle or Schiebel Camcopter, currently operated by the Navy Unmanned Aerial Systems Unit (NUASU), or an unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) controlled by an operator on the surface via a cable.
Autonomous vehicles, in the Navy context at least, can be pre-programmed to carry out a series of tasks and are therefore not always in contact with a human controller.
Current unmanned autonomous capability
With regard to underwater vehicles, the two major uses for unmanned or autonomous vehicles are in the aforementioned MCM and REA spaces. For the former role the current platform is the Saab Double Eagle Mk.II Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), which is used aboard Navy’s Huon class Mine Hunter Coastal (MHC) vessels.
According to Commander Paul Hornsby, Navy’s deputy director for Mine Warfare, Clearance Diving and Special Operations Capability, the Double Eagle is a robust platform ideally suited to Australian conditions.
“This was a lesson we learned some decades ago. While Australia might look like a paradise on the surface we have very strong currents, unlike the Mediterranean, the North Sea or the North Arabian Gulf,” CMDR Hornsby explained to ADM. “In the world of unmanned underwater systems, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.”
While the Double Eagle has performed well, it is likely being replaced by a new system or upgraded under Project Sea 1179 Phase 1 (Mine Hunter Coastal Service Life Extension and Capability Program). Indirectly supporting this project are the Sea 1778 (Task Group Mine Countermeasures) and Sea 1770 (Rapid Environmental Assessment – Maritime) projects, both of which have acquired both unmanned and autonomous systems.
Seven General Dynamics Maritime Systems (BlueZone) Bluefin autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in two sizes (four Bluefin 9 and three Bluefin 12), together with five 38ft (11.6m) Steber fibreglass support vessels - some of which will be configured as unmanned surface vessels (USVs) – are being acquired under Sea 1778 Phase 1 (Deployable MCM) and Navy stood up the first unit to operate them, Australian Mine Warfare Team 16 (AMWT-16) last year.
In the hydrographic space, Sea 1770 is acquiring a number of compact, lightweight Hydroid Remus 100 AUVs, which are capable of extremely precise data collection, albeit at a lower rate of effort than the MCM requirement. Navy also has a deployable geospatial team (DGST), who are the hydrographic equivalent of AMWT-16.
“With both of those programs, Government has specified a spiral development path, so we are buying small numbers, evaluating them and looking at where we want to go from there. Rather than committing ourselves to the acquisition of dozens of each particular platform, we’re taking a broad, comprehensive incremental approach and I think that’s the responsible way to do it,” CMDR Hornsby said.
“We’ll see how Bluefin and Remus and the USVs go and we’ll also monitor other systems. Because these are such ‘trending’ technologies, their lifecycles are, in some cases less than two years, unlike a major platform where you have a long capability lifecycle.”
Supporting major maritime projects
Each of the new maritime platforms being acquired in the next two decades under the Government’s continuous naval shipbuilding plan will have an unmanned or autonomous dimension to them, from OPVs to Future Submarines.
The specification of an OPV the size of at least the first 12 Lürssen-designed vessels being acquired under Sea 1180 Phase 1 is based upon the requirement to operate UAS, USVs and UUVs. The Hunter class vessels to be acquired under Sea 5000 (Future Frigate) similarly have dedicated space for unmanned aerial, surface and underwater systems.
“The primary mission for the first 12 OPVs is border protection and surveillance and they will have the ability to launch and recover unmanned autonomous systems, but they won’t necessarily be dedicated to that task,” CMDR Hornsby said. “This will also inform our development of Sea 1180 Phase 2 which will possibly acquire another eight OPVs to replace the MHCs and hydrographic ships. That gives us a lot of efficiencies if we do end up with a single design for the mine warfare, hydrographic and patrol (MHP) roles.”
Across the three MHP roles, Navy currently operates 30 vessels across six classes, with the use of USVs and UUVs to perform many of the mine warfare and hydrographic tasks, CMDR Hornsby predicts that this could be reduced to between 20 and 22 ships across one or perhaps two classes.
“By the time we finish building the last of those ships it will be time to begin construction of a replacement for the very first OPV, having been informed by the spiral development of unmanned and autonomous systems these ships will carry, whether for their mine warfare, or hydrographic, or their patrol and surveillance role.”
CMDR Hornsby says that Defence has committed to the Remus 100 under Sea 1770 and two variants of Bluefin under Sea 1778 for the underwater roles. For the unmanned surface vessel role, he said that Defence was working with the Defence Innovation Hub to develop a number of ideas that could prove beneficial. One such concept is the Ocius BlueBottle autonomous persistent USV, which has proven capable of operating in local heavy sea conditions.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that we will select the current Ocius BlueBottle,” he says. “But we’re very excited by the prospects.”
The use of a USV allows the autonomous underwater vehicles to communicate continuously and work effectively together, a concept that was successfully trialled during the Unmanned Warrior 2016 exercise held in UK waters and which will be further developed during Autonomous Warrior 2018.
“We can have half a dozen AUVs communicating with one another and they can also communicate with the USV, which is really important, given the limitations of the properties of water. That allows us for the first time to detect possible mines with AUVs in real-time, remotely and autonomously,” CMDRS Hornsby added. “Another key factor is that it dramatically improves your rate of effort within a balanced MCM or REA force.”
The Hunter class frigates being acquired under Sea 5000 will certainly operate some form of unmanned aerial vehicle, whether it is a fixed wing platform, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAV, or a mixture of both. The Type 26 design has a dedicated space amidships for USVs and UUVs, with studies underway within DST and Navy to look at launch and recovery systems which will enable their efficient use.
Further into the future, Sea 1000 will begin delivering the first of 12 new submarines in the early 2030’s and consideration is already being given to the use of autonomous underwater vehicles, particularly for tasks such as mine countermeasures. Products on the market today include a lager, submarine launched version of the General Dynamics Bluefin; and two variants of the Saab AUV-62, the AUV-62MR (mine reconnaissance) and AUV-62AT (target simulation).
“The target simulation vehicle can act like a submarine for training purposes and that has some additional advantages, because it goes well beyond the concept of being a decoy to counter your adversary’s torpedoes,” CMDS Hornsby said. “The best way to describe it is that it can operate for a long time as a submarine’s ‘wingman’, meaning an adversary may be fooled into thinking they are up against two submarines, and that’s some of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) we’re working on.”
Who Cares Wins – the ethical use of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an emotive term for some people and its development must be handled very carefully to ensure ethics are fully taken into consideration. CMDR Hornsby has coined the term ‘Who Cares Wins’ to describe the need for a deep understanding of ethics throughout the development cycle of autonomous systems and the AI which supports them.
“You need to understand what winning looks like and it had better be ethical. If it’s not ethical and it’s not value-based then you won’t win,” he said. “If you approach AI ethically it also allows you decision assurance. For example AI substantially reduces the risk of collateral damage, because you are mitigating human errors – errors which have historically contributed to bad decisions.”
Human interaction is very important, particularly when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of a population affected by conflict or a natural disaster. Although unmanned systems are increasingly able to shoulder much of the burden during these operations, the ‘shared risk’ of having humans involved in the processes will always be important.
“Nothing is going to comfort displaced people except another human. Nothing is going to assure an ally if you’re not there sharing the risk. An unmanned “vending system” distributing supplies, no matter how clever it is, cannot to that,” CMDR Hornsby added. “You won’t win hearts and minds by sending in a robot, it’s about being there.”
Autonomous Warrior 2018
The ‘Five Eyes’ Autonomous Warrior 2018 activity in November will incorporate the three requirements laid out for the ADF in the 2016 Defence White Paper for combat, regional security and military support operations and scenarios have been developed for the employment of autonomous and unmanned capability for each. For the first time in the series, unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) will be included in the operation, which will be conducted in the littoral environment in Jervis Bay.
The three requirements will be played out end to end across ten different scenarios including, counter submarine incursion, sea defence, counter piracy, counter arms smuggling, oil terminal and infrastructure defence, fleet base attack, fleet base defence, support to ground forces, managing civil unrest and clandestine insertion from sea.
“We are running them end to end, as if it was a deployed amphibious operation,” CMDR Hornsby explained to ADM. “The force multiplier effect of unmanned or autonomous systems in all domains, whether that’s a massively improved rate of effort underwater – being able to communicate in ways that we couldn’t before using USVs – being able to massively improve your ISR information from UAVs or being able to achieve distributed offensive and defensive effects with UGVs. They are the sorts of ground-breaking changes that are possible and that’s what we will be testing at Autonomous Warrior 2018.”
The core activity of AW18 is a DST-led trial to test the command and control and artificial intelligence systems that each of the five eyes partners has been working on under a program known as ‘Allied IMPACT’. There are also industry demonstrations and exercise components and because Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne is particularly keen for Australian innovation and Australian industry to be highlighted, VIPs, members of the NATO community and Australia’s partners in South-East Asia will be hosted on the last two days of the activity.
“Trusted autonomous systems are allowing us to do things better in conventional and unconventional warfare, but in littoral warfare they are allowing us to do things that we couldn’t do previously,” CMDR Hornsby concluded. “At AW18 we will have leading edge equipment and operationally-accepted equipment involved.
“Being conducted at the Royal Australian Naval College, this is future leaders meeting future technology.”
This article first appeared in the August 2018 edition of ADM.