December 12, 2016
After a year of internal research and development, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, recently conducted a large, at-sea demonstration of swarming unmanned surface vessels (USV). The experiment — done in collaboration with the Surface Targets Branch of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, Port Hueneme, California — was designed to advance the state of the art of collaborative, autonomous USV behaviors to higher speeds and larger numbers of vessels.
The successful demonstration took place in late September and involved six surface target boats operating together at high speeds, using hardware and software that APL developed and integrated with the reliable boat control system created by the Surface Targets Branch.
“To our knowledge, this represents the first time that six autonomous vessels have ‘swarmed’ at tactically relevant speeds,” said Jim Horris, APL program manager for Autonomy Test and Evaluation. “And the joint team implemented a full safety protocol without the need for additional safety boats.”
The demonstration scenario was an unmanned patrol of a restricted maritime area such as a range or marine preserve. The boats traveled at speeds up to 35 knots to execute fully autonomous behaviors such as cooperative persistent search, target detection and tracking, rendezvous, pursuit and escort.
The surface vessel control system, employed throughout the fleet of high-speed surface targets worldwide and refined over the last 15 years by the Surface Targets Branch, provided a distinct advantage during integration and testing. The operator control station software developed by APL and coupled with the Navy system allowed safe, broad command and control capabilities as well as “on-the-fly” mission planning.
In addition to achieving this milestone capability, the demonstration provided great insight into the challenges of swarming at high speeds, as well as changes needed by the testing community to establish the operational “trust” necessary for adoption of autonomous systems.
APL is exploring next steps with the Navy and other Department of Defense stakeholders to incorporate the technology into operations and related development programs.
Media contact: Geoff Brown, 240-228-5618, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.