The global market for military unmanned vehicles is increasing. Fixed and rotary wing aircraft, submarines, mine hunters, patrol boats – unmanned, autonomous versions of all these and more have become mainstream. The demand for these force multipliers is strong and growing.
For Navies, which may be operating anywhere in the world, the ability to extend its surveillance capabilities safely and relatively inexpensively with mission-appropriate assets is an attractive proposition. But there’s a problem.
At present, every unmanned vehicle requires its own dedicated control system, through which its missions are defined and its data - in a video feed for example - is reported. To survey large areas it is necessary - or at least desirable - to have several vehicles in operation at the same time each with its own control system and operator. And that takes up space as well as adding complexity.
With space in any Operations Room at a premium, it doesn’t take long before the ‘clutter’ of multiple individual control stations starts to limit how many unmanned assets can be used at any one time. And this is the challenge that some of the best minds from Thales, SeeByte BAE Systems and QinetiQ, have been wrestling with, in Project MAPLE (Maritime Autonomous Platform Exploitation).
Project MAPLE created the Autonomous Control Exploitation and Realisation (ACER) system to demonstrate a capability to integrate the command and control of unmanned systems of different types and provide a single command system on a navy ship. The objective was to increase the amount of intelligence that can be integrated into the tactical picture, without suffering the inefficient clutter of multiple control systems and operators.
The task of systems integration was assigned to Thales.
It’s about the exploitation of unmanned technology, most of which already exists but this is the first time that command and control for unmanned vehicles of different manufacture - underwater, on the surface, and in the air – has been brought together in an open architecture. It really unlocks the possibilities of how autonomous unmanned vehicles can be used to improve operations.
Matthew Hunt, Thales’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Business Lead
ACER’s open architecture has some immediate and substantial advantages. All types of unmanned assets can be more easily integrated; there is no reliance on a single manufacturer; training becomes quicker and easier; operations data can be integrated with Command and Control (C2) much more efficiently, and the number of unmanned assets that can be used in any single mission is substantially increased.
“Ultimately, the technology will let the Commander decide which area to survey and the system will task the most appropriate assets to complete the mission. The information coming back will integrate with the C2 tactical picture without the need for multiple and separate control stations and operators,” explained Hunt.
ACER in action at Unmanned Warrior
ACER was fitted to the research ship Northern River, in preparation for trials in the Royal Navy’s ‘Unmanned Warrior’ exercise off the coast of Scotland, in which it simulated a warship.
En route from Portsmouth, the ship paused for two days in Wales to demonstrate the system working with Watchkeeper - Thales’s Unmanned Air Vehicle, currently in service with the British Army. Watchkeeper flew in a series of exercises ranging from persistent wide area surveillance, through to supporting landing forces and naval gunfire, demonstrating its value in enhancing the Royals Navy’s defensive capabilities.
Once in Scotland, ACER was shown with Halcyon, Thales’s autonomous unmanned surface vehicle. Halcyon, equipped with a Thales Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar (T-SAS), took part in a number of mine hunting challenges aimed to demonstrate the significant benefits of autonomous technology when operating in hostile environments.
The open systems design of ACER has also attracted international interest, with manufacturers from the United States, Australia and other countries taking the opportunity to test their own unmanned assets with the system. This month for example, ACER will once again be put to the test during Australia’s Autonomous Warrior exercise in Jervis Bay led by the Australian Department Science and Technology (DST). The system will be required to work with a number of unmanned systems in exercises ranging from mine-countermeasures to anti-submarine warfare.
A glimpse of the future
The idea behind MAPLE is to demonstrate how the specific challenges of unmanned systems - such as limited control rooms in terms of space, manning and power resources available, plus the lack of interoperability between proprietary architectures can be solved.
“MAPLE demonstrates how to fully exploit the potential of unmanned autonomous vehicles. We proved that at Unmanned Warrior,” said Hunt, adding “The challenge is now moving from how much space you have in the control room to your capacity to launch and recover unmanned assets.”
How the future plays out is up to Navies and other military forces. But Hunt sees some beguiling possibilities.
“There’s no logical reason why you can’t have a number of Unmanned Air Vehicles all working together on the same mission, under a single and centralised C2,” explained Hunt. “And although we are demonstrating the technology on a ship, it could just as easily be used on a quayside or airfield to enhance port security or other applications.”
“Wherever it’s used, though, it means that the inherent value of unmanned and autonomous systems can now be fully exploited.”