The Utility Ship of Tomorrow is a robot that will follow the laws of the sea, autonomously chart its own course, and carry a range of payloads to serve the Navy throughout its lifetime.
As Inside Defense reported last week, the US Navy’s new Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel (MUSV) “will feature a large payload area where the Navy can ‘choose’ platform capabilities.”
Another way to look at this tidbit is that the Navy wants a new kind of robotic boat, knows the approximate size of the ship they want, and doesn’t yet know exactly how that robot will be used for war. Designing a boat that can take on a range of payloads, and as such perform a wide range of missions, allows the Navy to determine how best to integrate robotic boats into normal operations first and then refine the how she wants to use these machines. in the future.
The MUSV is part of an ongoing program to provide a range of robotic vehicles for the Navy. It’s built by defense giant L3Harris, and what’s most immediately notable about the ship are all the features it won’t have.
“One of the most common requests we used to see was for a bridge – I need a bridge on my ship,” said Regan Campbell, general manager of autonomous and advanced naval platforms at L3 Harris, at the Tech Unmanned podcast in December 2021.
It’s not hard to see how human captains began to imagine robotic ships as mere automated versions of existing ships. The bridge is a central node for face-to-face communication between people who manage important ship functions, such as direction, mission and smooth operation. But this is totally unnecessary on a robotic boat, where these tasks are handled algorithmically or, if the boat requires human intervention, people on shore or another vessel can handle it.
[Related: The US Navy is testing autonomous seafaring robots that patrol the ocean]
Designing a ship without a deck is only the first step to making a ship self-sufficient from the start. Human crews need spaces to eat, sleep, and attend to other biological functions. A robotic ship needs none of that and can instead dedicate its space to fuel, sensors, redundant safety systems, and whatever else its operation may require.
Without a human crew on board, the MUSV will instead need automated systems to support it for missions lasting between 30 and 45 days, or even longer. Redundant safety systems, along with sensors to detect damage and initiate repairs, will be essential to ensure the long-term viability of a robot without human intervention on board to perform routine maintenance.
[Related: The US Navy launched a missile from a ghost ship. Wait, what?]
“Medium” is a relative term, and the Navy’s definition for the vehicle is between 45 and 190 feet long. This size range encompasses the size of existing patrol boats or smaller vessels used by navies and coast guards to operate in rivers, harbors and along coastlines. Sea Hunter, the autonomous boat originally developed for a DARPA project, is 132 feet long.
The Sea Hunter had a displacement of 140 tons, which is at the lower end of what you would expect for the MUSV. Navy requirements could see ships as massive as 500 tons in displacement. This mass of ship will be occupied by a variable range of tools for missions, from spotting to jamming enemy signals to transport, at least initially. The ability to select sensor configurations and other tools could allow the MUSV to be a flexible element of Navy operations.
L3Harris began building the prototype in 2021. Once complete and in the water, it will need to overcome a mundane hurdle: understanding and obeying the laws of the sea. The goal of Maritime Autonomy, Campbell said, is that robotic ships “understand the environment around them and operate efficiently and predictably within that environment”.
[Related: The Navy’s next-gen destroyer concept involves powerful lasers]
This means following collision regulations, or the international rules that sailors all follow to avoid accidents at sea.
This work will build a future where robot ships “behave more predictably to human and maritime traffic,” Campbell said. If the MUSV can navigate like a human and follow the same rules, it can fit into existing ship traffic, ideally without behaving erratically or endangering other ships.
Hopefully, that means a useful robotic ship that can be on patrol for weeks at a time, without a human crew on board or a remote control. If it behaves normally, it can blend in with other traffic, until sailors on another ship realize the robot is sailing without a bridge.