The Way Ahead for Maritime Autonomous Systems


By Robbin Laird

In November 2023, I sat down with George Galdorisi to discuss the way ahead for maritime autonomous systems. He started by looking at where we are currently with autonomous systems more generally.

He noted that we have seen significant progress with air and ground unmanned systems over the past decade, and increased experimentation and exploration by both the USMC and the US Navy with regard to both USVs and UUVs over the past few years.

He underscored that “the U.S. Navy has indicated that its fleet of the future will have 350 crewed and 150 uncrewed platforms. That is the good news. The bad news is that the Navy has not presented a concept of operations of how such a fleet would operate which is necessary to persuade the Congress to come up with the money for such a fleet transformation.”

He then explained why the Navy is clearly interested in autonomous systems. The first criteria is simply cost. “The vast bulk of the cost of a platform operated by the Navy is manpower, the numbers of sailors and officers who need to man the ship, and their cost on active duty and retirement. Uncrewed systems — compared to remotely piloted systems – have no crew costs onboard and limited manned costs in operating them, compared to a manned asset.”

The second criteria is the mission set which uncrewed systems have demonstrated they can perform. Among these mission sets are performing missions which take the sailor out of the tactical edge of most danger, such as working counter-mine solutions.

Another mission is the ability of USVs to deliver logistics to Marines ashore or to reinforce afloat logistical support. The challenge of enabling a sustained distribute force is daunting and maritime autonomous systems can help in this regard. A third mission is ISR in which the maritime autonomous system can operate within the threat zone to complement other air, space and sea ISR systems.

Galdorisi underscored the speed and maneuverability already demonstrated by some USVs which give them a unique advantage in working to complicate adversary defensive operations.

“There’s one manufacturer. MARTAC, which advertises their USVs as being able to operate beyond human capability. Their USVs can make 6 G turns which would make a human pass out. But they can be programmed to dodge enemy fire by zigzagging and doing things that make them hard to hit.

“Doing a mission close to the enemy’s assets, you wouldn’t want to send a manned asset when you can send a wolfpack of autonomous assets. The Navy’s already committed over a billion dollars to large USVs and these are craft that are going to be 200 or 300 feet long, and about the size of a corvette. You can load them up with medium and small USVs. You can deliver them near the area of operations.

“The medium sized USVs swim out to do intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. You can also send in UUVs and USVs to work together to work on counter-mine missions. This capability has already been demonstrated such as in Integrated Battle Problem 22.”

I then raised the point that building out autonomous systems capabilities is a key response to the problem of the shrinking age cohort to staff the USMC and US Navy as well. Operating autonomous systems is not important only for the evolving concept of operations but to empower the ability of a smaller Naval manpower force to prevail in future conflicts.

The final question we addressed was why getting on with it is so important. Maritime autonomous systems are not like crewed systems. They are software driven and AI enabled. Improvements will only be made as users feedback their operational experience to the code writers to then change the systems that define the platforms and their capabilities.

Galdorisi concluded: It’s a lot cheaper, easier and faster with the autonomous systems compared to crewed systems because you’re not having to rebuild the boat with three engines instead of two or a whole different sea frame. You’re just updating the software. That is not easy and it is challenging. But it’s an order of magnitude less expensive time consuming then building a new ship.”

The featured photo shows a high speed run of a MARTAC Devil Ray. Credit: MARTAC.