Surface Forces: Robots Ready to Rule the Waves


January2, 2007: Israel and the United States are both rushing to develop and deploy Unmanned surface vessels (USVs). The technology for these small (10-30 foot long) boats has been around for over a decade. USVs operate much like UAVs, but on water. The advantages of having fewer sailors in harms way has an obvious appeal. The navy has found a number of jobs for USVs. These include;

@ Mine clearing. Actually, Unmanned underwater vessels (UUVs) have been doing this for several decades, but USVs can tow sensors that look for mines. The USVs are small and light enough so that they do not trigger naval mines. Once a mine has been spotted (usually sitting on the bottom), a UUV is sent down to confirm that, and leave an explosive charge to destroy the mines.

@ Searching for submarines. Again, USVs can carry, or tow, sensors. While helicopters have been popular for anti-submarine (ASW) work, USVs are a lot cheaper and you can afford to have more of them out there. Moreover, it's easier to have ASW USVs automated (operating largely on their own.) This is nothing new. A major ASW innovation during World War II was mathematically developed search patterns for going after enemy subs. These software controlled USVs would be monitored by a sailor on its mother ship, but otherwise would carry out its search until it found something, or had to return to refuel.

@ Security. Watching out for suicide boats, or ship traffic in general, is something USVs are well suited for. This is what Israel is interested in, as they are constantly exposed to seaborne terrorist attacks. Again, one ship can deploy and control a dozen or more USVs for this kind of security work. USVs are considered a potential boost to increasing security at U.S. ports.

@ Reconnaissance. Just collecting information is easier using USVs. You don't expose any sailors to danger, and the small USVs are much less likely to be detected by a hostile force you are checking out. USVs can carry a lot of the lightweight and powerful sensors available today, to collect photos, sonar data and electronic intercepts.

In the next few years, the United States and Israel, and possibly other nations as well, will be putting USVs into service. These will be vessels that have already been in development, including some field testing, for several years. American destroyers, frigates and LCS ships will deploy USVs, as will the U.S. Navy's new naval infantry force (which also uses small boats for riverine and coastal combat operations.) USVs can also be delivered by air, or submarine.


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