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NEWS | Aug. 12, 2019

Navy expands innovation through unmanned vehicles, saving time and money

By Katherine Mapp NSWC PCD Public Affairs

Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) is leading a collaborative and innovative effort in development of modular, inexpensive unmanned systems.

Originally called the Swarm Minimum Viable Product (Swarm MVP), this innovative project is now collectively known as the “microSwarm Family of Systems,” or “µFOS.” The µFOS project seeks to reduce cost and manufacturing complexity in unmanned vehicle systems while maintaining performance and integrating the land, sea, and air domains through modular open architecture based command and control.

According to Dr. Cameron Matthews, NSWC PCD µFOS principle investigator, the program began when he recognized a need for inexpensive unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) assets as targets under his counter UUV (cUUV) efforts.

“I got into this business to break vehicles, not to make vehicles,” said Matthews. “Along with co-partners on the effort Jeremy Hankins and Brian Wallace, we set out to develop a concept for extremely low cost vehicles that could do more than just be cannon fodder.”

Matthews credited the work largely to what was originally a Naval Innovative Science and Engineering (NISE) project led by NSWC PCD Scientists Drs. Drew Lucas and Patrick Walters. Drs Walters and Lucas were working with NSWC Carderock, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Newport, and NUWC Keyport to develop inexpensive autonomy systems, more for testing artificial intelligence and machine learning than complete systems.

“We recognized what Lucas and Walters were doing with their autonomy testbed could save the U.S. Navy millions down the road if we were prosecuting targets that cost a few thousand dollars each rather than upwards of a million each,” said Matthews. “It was a short while later we realized that most of the platform components were sufficient to support many missions typically reserved for our more attractive but expensive and complex platforms.”

Through three-dimensional printing, Matthews said many parts on a UUV, unmanned Aerial systems, or unmanned surface vehicles, commonly referred to in general as UxVs, can be quickly and cheaply produced rather than procured. While working with Lucas and Walters to develop government designs, Hankins and Wallace collaborated in parallel with industry partners to develop the beginnings of mass producible systems and identify the required facilities.

“The design of µFOS has quickly led to balancing efforts between “Lean” practices (just enough, right on time) where parts are printed on demand and the older model of stockpiling components in quantity such that you never run out,” said Matthews. “The µFOS system is built to be interchangeable with batteries and payload. If a fin breaks, users can print another. If users want to change software, another version can be easily downloaded. Best of all, if a user loses the system, another one can be made and delivered in short order at little cost.”

The cost savings to the Navy is significantly increasing as development is furthering.

“We’ve seen an overall reduction of about 40 percent for functional vehicles,” said Matthews. “We anticipate getting down to about 70 percent of our starting point for a baseline vehicle, which easily falls under $10k per unit even without mass production incentives.”

Matthews said the µFOS project is important because by the end of this project, µFOS will have already accrued over 500 hours of at-sea test time. This has greatly informed the design requirements to make the vehicles work consistently enough to perform their missions as they roll off the assembly line. NSWC PCD expects to one day be able to develop vehicles through industry partners at rates of many thousands per year.

“The most relevant part for us isn’t how they’re used. The systems are appropriate to conduct a lot of missions, whether it’s mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, or be a target for cUUV training,” said Matthews. They are easy to fabricate, work as advertised, and are cost effective enough to be considered expendable.”

NSWC PCD has been working across the Naval Research & Development Enterprise, as well as with industry partners, to develop cost effective target drones, and looks forward to working in the future to be able to release government off the shelf designs to industry that will allow the Navy to leverage industry’s manufacturing capabilities to produce large volumes of product with little effort from both sides. Future efforts include expanding the number of UxV components that can be cost-effectively produced in the laboratory, including motors and electronics.

The design and innovation of these unmanned systems is sponsored through NISE funding.