TAUNTON, Mass. — General Dynamics Mission Systems, focused on moving its Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle through low-rate initial production, has opened a new UUV manufacturing and assembly facility here.
The company formally opened the UUV center of excellence in an Aug. 13 ceremony at its Taunton manufacturing site, which since 1987 has built systems for the U.S. Army and other customers. The Knifefish UUV was previously built at the company’s facility in Quincy, Mass., but the work has outgrown the facility as General Dynamics juggles building the Knifefish, engineering and backfitting improvements and building smaller UUVs in the Bluefin family of systems for customers like the Royal Australian Navy.
Carlo Zaffanella, vice president and general manager of the GDMS Maritime and Strategic Systems business, said at a short ribbon-cutting ceremony this move is the latest in about $30 million in investments the company has made in UUV design and manufacturing.
“Frankly, we’re going to continue that. We strongly believe that the era of maritime autonomy is very much upon us. The ability to make systems that are unmanned, that can do things that manned vessels cannot, can take sailors out of harm’s way — that era is here, and the technologies needed to do that, whether they be the engineering inside or the absolutely first-grade manufacturing that is done at a facility like this — all of that now exists,” he told the manufacturing center’s employees along with company leaders and Navy Knifefish program officials.
In 2019, General Dynamics was awarded a low-rate initial production contract for Knifefish, which is based on the 21-inch diameter version of the Bluefin Robotics UUV. The company is working its way through building five systems, with each system including two UUVs, launch and recovery equipment, command-and-control gear and more. These systems are being built to the Baseline 0 design, but improvements for a Baseline 1 upgrade are already in the works and will be backfit onto the initial UUVs before they’re delivered to the Navy for operational testing as part of the Littoral Combat Ship mine countermeasures mission package.
The LCS MCM package includes three airborne and three in-water systems that will combine to search for and destroy mines buried under the seafloor, in the water and in the surf zone. Knifefish provides a buried mine-hunting capability, with sophisticated sensors that can look at all the clutter on the ocean floor — natural things like rocks and reefs as well as junk as large as refrigerators — and determine what is likely to be a mine. Sailors can then send in other tools to a likely mine, verify what it is and figure out the best way to neutralize it.
The upgrade to Block 1, for which the Navy awarded a $73 million contract in June, will “enhance Knifefish operations at deeper depths, identify more complex target environments and provide more precise localization,” according to a company release.
With the opening of the new UUV facility, the employees at Taunton who specialize in manufacturing and final assembly will bring their training and expertise to this Navy program, while the nearby Quincy facility will continue the UUV engineering, as well as building some subcomponents of the Knifefish and conducting final in-water testing before delivering the vehicles to the Navy.
Zaffanella told reporters after the ceremony the technology will continue to improve. Even as General Dynamics is building the initial units and backfitting them to the Block 1 configuration, the company is also working on other improvements for UUVs overall, whether it be the Knifefish, the related Bluefin-21 commercial variant, or the smaller Bluefin-12 and Bluefin-9 UUVs.
He said the launch and recovery process from an LCS or other ship has become relatively straightforward. The next step is finding ways to make UUVs operationally more useful. A top focus here, he said, is the ability to analyze data while the UUV is still in the water, for something closer to real-time threat identification.
“Clearly, you would like to get to where more of that analysis were possible in real time, or at least as close to real time as you can make it,” Zaffanella told reporters. “If we could get the devices to provide not just essentially a map of what’s out there but perhaps detects or even tracks and say, ‘This is really what you want to be concerned about in real time,’ then the operational utility will go up.”
“That is sort of in my mind one of the necessary evolutions in the next, I’d say five years,” he continued. “Right now, we have to produce these reliably, get them into the Navy’s hands, get them to the operators so that the sailors can use them. But I think that’s a natural evolution.”
Zaffanella added that increased endurance and better batteries will also be points of focus.
General Dynamics bought Bluefin Robotics in 2016 after partnering with the company to use its Bluefin-21 as the base for Knifefish. Knifefish refers to the specific configuration with the Navy’s sensors for mine countermeasures. Australia is also using the Bluefin-12 and Bluefin-9 for mine countermeasures, but Zaffanella said the UUV could do other things for military, government or commercial customers.
“It’s a large deployable capability with a payload section that you could fill, so that leaves a lot of opportunity,” he said, adding it can provide “tremendous surveillance capabilities.”
On the commercial side, he said, the UUV could detect natural resources or lost items at sea or conduct exploration or surveillance missions.
The Block 1 systems will go to the Navy next year for testing. LCS mission modules program manager Capt. Gus Weekes, in an Aug. 3 presentation at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference in Maryland, said the Block 0 configuration met the Navy’s original needs, but great power competition is pushing the Navy toward pursuing a more capable vehicle as part of the mission package.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.