The workhorse of the military's undersea drone inventory is an autonomous device 8 feet long and 12.5 inches in diameter. It's good up to depths of about 600 meters. As mine-seekers, these machines have proven their stripes.
But the next generation is going to be something else entirely: more than 25 feet long, 48 inches in diameter and able to travel autonomously for hundreds of miles.
"We would like to build a vehicle that could go 30 to 60 days in mission endurance, with power to go 1,000 miles," said Frank Herr, head of ocean battle sensing at the Office of Naval Research. "It will have the autonomy to be able to find its way to do a naval mission without reporting home constantly."
An industry day last fall for the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Innovative Naval Prototype, or LDUUV INP, drew more than 265 representatives from 138 large and small companies, the Navy reported.
Researchers are looking at ways to enhance the UUV's autonomous capabilities. In one recent award, ONR inked a $29.8 million deal with Metron under which that company will develop machine intelligence solutions to enable future UUVs to act with greater independence.
"These systems need to operate near [nautical] features, in complex areas, in conjunction with other vehicles. One vehicle would have to know how to operate in the presence of another vehicle. It will need to watch itself doing business, knowing how to reroute data if there is a fault, for example," Herr said. "If we are not going to be able to repair this in the course of a mission, it will need to repair itself and reroute itself."
With the power to go the distance and the intelligence to stay in action, the large UUV could support a range of sensors in support of diverse missions yet to be determined.
"It doesn't do us any good to speculate because so much will depend on the advances in the autonomy algorithms," Herr said. "But we know in general that a platform of this type can augment naval platform, removing sailors from missions that are very dangerous."
Presently in the prototype phase, the new large UUVs could be fielded within two years, Herr said.