The rise of AI at sea
Illustration: Eniola Edetunde
The Navy wants to expand its fleets by as many as 89 uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) over the next several years. USVs use artificial intelligence (AI) in place of a human crew, and are designed to operate autonomously for weeks or months at a time.
Why you should know: USVs are one of the most promising areas of military AI expansion. They could help the Navy reduce acquisition costs and staffing requirements. More importantly, they could minimize risk to U.S. sailors by operating out in front of the fight.
The Pentagon is funding prototypes and purchasing new ships, including two manufactured by Leidos:
- Seahawk, with a cruising range of several thousand miles and speeds comparable to crewed warships.
- Sea Hunter, which costs a fraction of what a crewed vessel of similar capability would cost.
What they can do: USVs are promising alternatives to crewed warships for a range of missions:
- Carrying surveillance payloads
- Hunting mines
- Towing supplies
- Searching for acoustic signals in deep water
- Mapping the sea floor for safe navigation
From the source: “Right now it’s expensive to run some of those missions,” said Leidos expert Dan Brintzinghoffer. “You’d probably use a destroyer, which costs a couple billion dollars, and a crew of 300 sailors. You could send a USV instead and be just as effective.”
But the technology behind USVs is very different than uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) and driverless cars. Autonomy at sea presents unique engineering challenges.
USVs must maintain themselves for long periods of time, including systems for:
- Heating and cooling
- Electrical distribution
“If you add an algorithm to the navigation system of an existing ship, it might get you from point to point,” Brintzinghoffer said. “But what if your engine fails?”
USVs must also comply with COLREGS, the universal instructions to avoid collisions at sea.
Maritime collisions kill thousands each year. The summer of 2017 alone saw two major collisions involving US destroyers and multiple fatalities:
- The USS Fitzgerald collided with a tanker near Tokyo.
- The USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore.
“Most of these accidents happen when someone doesn’t do what’s expected,” Brintzinghoffer said. “USVs must be smart enough to conduct missions within COLREGS or risk self-destruction.”
Looking ahead: While survey and logistics missions are good starting points, Brintzinghoffer said USVs will take on more complex and dangerous missions as the Navy becomes more comfortable trusting them.
As USV technology advances, the Navy can offload routine or dangerous missions onto USVs, options which are safer and less costly.
“Gibbs & Cox is widely regarded for developing the most talented and experienced naval designers in the world,” said Leidos Chairman and CEO Roger Krone. “We look forward to this new era of innovation while combining the best of both companies.”
Please contact the Leidos media relations team for more.