Even before it is formally delivered to the Navy, the future USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13) is performing a series of planned test events assessing autonomous capabilities integrated into the shipboard configuration, demonstrating that a large ship can become a self-driving platform.
Shipbuilder, Austal USA was awarded a $44 million contract last June to deliver autonomous capabilities to the Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel, while retaining capability for manned operations.
The ship is a multi-use military platform capable of rapidly transporting troops and their equipment, supporting humanitarian relief or operational efforts, and can operate in shallow waters. The contract modification called on Austal USA to install a perception and autonomy control suite, as well as several automation enhancements to the machinery plant, improving the hull, mechanical and electrical reliability while reducing the amount of personnel required for operations and maintenance at sea.
Austal USA is one of the six companies recently awarded contract modifications for “continued studies of a large unmanned surface vessel” (LUSV).
Known as Unmanned Logistics Prototype trials, each of a series of test events now being carried out by the Navy’s PEO Ships increases the perception capabilities and complexity of behaviors demonstrated by the autonomous systems. Test evolutions to date include point-to-point autonomous navigation, vessel handling and transfer of vessel control between manned to unmanned modes.
“The autonomous capabilities being demonstrated by this prototype system represent a major technological advancement for the EPF platform, the Navy at large and our industry partners. EPF 13 will be the first fully operational U.S. naval ship to possess autonomous capability including the ability to operate autonomously in a commercial vessel traffic lane,” said Tim Roberts, Strategic and Theater Sealift program manager, PEO Ships. “This testing is a game changer and highlights that there is potential to expand unmanned concepts into existing fleet assets.”
Collaboration for the test events include team members from PEO Ships, PEO Unmanned and Small Combatants, Naval Systems Engineering and Logistics Directorate – Surface Ship Design and System Engineering, Supervisor of Shipbuilding – Gulf Coast, Naval Surface Warfare Center support from Carderock, Combatant Craft Division, Dahlgren and Philadelphia and the Navy’s shipbuilding and industry partners, Austal USA, L3 Harris and General Dynamics.
Future test events will add levels of difficulty and include night navigation, and differing weather and sea states. These trials will set crucial groundwork for autonomous vessel operations, to include vessel encounter and avoidance maneuvering and compliance with International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).
EPF 13 is scheduled to deliver to the Navy later this year.