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September 26, 2017

Autonomous Swarming Boats Make Great Waves at Navy and Marine Corps Exercise

In an earlier demonstration in September 2016, a Johns Hopkins APL experiment, in collaboration with the Surface Targets Branch of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, Port Hueneme, California, successfully demonstrated 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.
Credit: U.S. Navy/JHUAPL

swarming unmanned surface vessels

The Lab’s autonomous swarming unmanned surface vessels (SUSVs) — equipped with APL-developed hardware and autonomy software — performed numerous self-guided tasks at this year’s Advanced Naval Technological Exercise 2017 (ANTX) at USMC Base Camp Pendleton, California.
Credit: APL

swarming unmanned surface vessels

During the exercise, APL’s SUSVs were called upon to provide flank security for USMC amphibious assault forces. The APL team quickly responded to the new challenge, and the technology responded well to both this and a second unplanned mission requested by the exercise administrators.
Credit: APL

Last spring, a team from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Maryland, had the opportunity to demonstrate Lab-developed autonomous surface patrol capabilities for the Navy and Marine Corps during the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Advanced Naval Technological Exercise 2017 (ANTX). The experiment was held April 19–28 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California.

The goal of the ANTX series is to bring together industry and academia to showcase cutting-edge technology and equipment for the Navy and Marine Corps, allowing the services to evaluate prototypes that may eventually be developed for the military. This exercise focused on amphibious operations and how the Marines could utilize advanced autonomous technologies to transition from ship to shore with greater combat power and fewer casualties. More than 60 different vendors showcased unmanned air, ground, surface and undersea vehicles, unmanned vehicle control systems, weapon systems, communications, common operational picture and situational awareness.

The Lab’s autonomous swarming unmanned surface vessels (SUSVs) — which were first demonstrated in collaboration with the Surface Targets Branch of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in Port Hueneme, California, last year — are equipped with APL-developed hardware and autonomy software integrated with the existing control systems for the boats (known as High Speed Maneuverable Surface Targets, or HSMSTs). The Lab was the only organization to feature multi-agent (multi-vehicle) collaborative autonomy at the event.

The APL engineering team consisted of Michael Hannan, principal investigator, and software engineer Da Xu. The team spent a number of 12- to 14-hour days on shore and on the water, demonstrating collaborative autonomy on three boats. They exercised man-on-the-loop (where an operator oversees autonomous decisions made by the SUSVs) and man-in-the-loop (the operator is part of the decision-making process) control from an operator station mounted alternately on a fourth vessel and then on shore, at ranges up to seven miles. “The team exhibited the kind of discipline and professionalism people have come to expect from APL, and they were commended by the exercise planners,” said Jim Horris, program manager. “Our folks did an outstanding job under demanding circumstances.”

Navy pilots are aboard each autonomous boat for safety and legal reasons, and in the beginning, it took some familiarization for them to become comfortable with the idea of being driven at high speed by APL’s software. At the start of each day, the APL team polled the HSMST pilots to determine the sea state. Because the autonomy has the capability to manage speed and heading together, the boats can be made to execute different speeds for head-on and following seas. While the HSMSTs are capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots, the boats can take more punishment than the pilots, and safety dictates speed management. “We have a great relationship with the pilots from Port Hueneme,” said Horris. “They are comfortable with how our autonomy works, and we operate well together.” Leveraging the highly capable autonomy software and the extensive experience of the pilots allowed the team to successfully participate in the demonstration, despite swells up to eight feet.

APL demonstrated a variety of collaborative autonomy behaviors including rendezvous, pursuit, and escort as well as formations, obstacle and collision avoidance, and manned-unmanned teaming (MUMT). On hand to observe the SUSVs were Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley; Commandant of the United States Marine Corps General Robert Neller; Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, Test & Evaluation Dr. John Burrow; Deputy Commandant Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh; and Commander Naval Surface Forces, Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden.

In addition to planned exercises, when APL arrived at ANTX, the Navy asked the team to execute two more tasks. The first was marsupial technology insertion, or the delivery of one unmanned system by another unmanned system; second, the APL team was asked to implement a flank security screen, deploying the USVs to patrol and secure the side of the invasion units. APL’s team tackled both challenges, and the technology responded well to both new missions.

“We think this is the leading multi-agent autonomy system for USVs — it’s a state-of-the-art package,” said Horris.

APL has been invited to another event this fall at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, known as Bold Alligator. In addition to the previous technology capability, the team will incorporate their recent advancements in advanced maritime perception onto the SUSVs.

Media contacts:
Justyna Surowiec, 240-228-5020,
Geoff Brown, 240-228-5618,

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