A New York-based defence contractor L3 Technologies is building out an entire business unit focused on sea-based autonomy according to an article in the Washington Post. Overseeing it all is Sean Stackley, a former Navy official who joined the company in January who served as assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, in the Navy earlier. He says that at present, the approach is based mainly around teaming manned ships with robots, delegating dangerous or menial tasks like mine-clearing to unmanned submarines.
“When you use manned mine countermeasure ships, it is an extremely laborious process, and it means you’ve got a manned ship in a minefield,” says Stackley in charge of acquisitions at L3. “About 10 to 20 years ago, a decision was made to think about using unmanned vehicles to sense and neutralise mines in a minefield. But while that was the right path to go down at that time, frankly the technology was not mature enough at the time.”
Stackley is following a broader school of thought for the U.S. military, in which military services develop autonomous technologies that can be deployed alongside manned vessels. These devices for example can be used to clear sea mines without putting humans in harm’s way.
The Navy is looking towards employing its own unmanned vehicles to clear mines, scout unfamiliar territory or wage anti-submarine warfare. And big-name defence contractors are eagerly buying the rights to next-generation technologies that would be game changers in aqua marine autonomy. L3 Technologies is building out an entire business unit focused on preparing for a future in which the Navy buys fewer aircraft carriers and more robots.
Over the past 18 months, L3 intensified its acquisitions of autonomous boats, submarines and their enabling technologies.
L3 announced late last year, that for the Navy’s “extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle” competition, it was teaming up with the defence giant Boeing. L3 also purchased a smaller firm called OceanServer Technology, a 15-year-old start-up that makes unmanned underwater vehicles in April of last year and bought a company ‘Open Water Power’, which works on specialised batteries that enable submarines to power themselves for longer periods of time. It also bought Adaptive Methods, a Centreville, Virginia-based Company that develops the advanced sensor and payload systems for unmanned underwater vehicles. Last month, the company bought ASV Global, a market leader in “Autonomous Surface Vehicles,” self-driving boats that are sold to commercial and military customers.
L3’s acquisition of ASV is an early step for the company in building production lines for unmanned systems. The company says it has more than 100 unmanned surface vehicles deployed around the world with various military and commercial buyers. There is interest from the commercial shipping and energy industries as well. Approximately 60 per cent of L3’s maritime business comes from commercial buyers.