Webinar Five: Q&A

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Following our final installment of the UDT webinar series, focusing on uncrewed and autonomous systems, our panel have responded to audience questions which we did not have time to cover during the session.

If you missed the initial broadcast, the webinar is available to view on demand here.

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How are new autonomous systems to be powered, particularly for lengthy covert operations?

Dr Jerome Gormley: Onboard energy will always be limited, and while small, incremental improvements continue, there are no foreseeable breakthroughs percolating in a university or lab. This drives us towards renewing the onboard energy periodically, either with seabed power nodes or 'mule' UUVs that rendezvous and transfer energy, either by transferring fuel or more likely inductive charging.

How much of an issue is the supply of electrical power to UUVs?

Dr Jerome Gormley: This is not a problem. Subsea inductive chargers are an active area of research and product development.

What would be an appropriate first step for a Navy that does not yet operate unmanned systems?

Full question: Knowing that Unmanned Systems will invade the next decade on all continents with surface, land, air and submarine vehicles, and knowing that several countries are already operating with such technologies, what would be a good and appropriate step for a Navy that does not yet operate unmanned systems to start with..?

Dr Jerome Gormley: Two parallel paths are suggested: first, in your tactics development organization, start a team developing tactics, techniques, and procedures for fleet use of such technology. Second, have an experimental squadron buy relatively cheap COTS products and start experimenting/using them daily.

Any thoughts on the Zebra Sodium-Nickel Chloride battery?

Dr Jerome Gormley: Yes - a pretty nice battery with many favorable aspects. It (and variants) have been, and continue to be, tried and operationally tested in various platforms globally. I think for undersea use the big problem to overcome is the need to keep the sodium molten. Although it may not take much energy, it does take some. More importantly is the robustness - if something can go wrong, it will. Imagine the heating circuit goes down and the battery freezes - you are totally down hard. Combined with past naval experiences with sodium-cooled reactors (freezing and maintenance were a nightmare) means there is great reluctance. Rolls Royce has proposed this tech for undersea/submarine use but I don't think the advantages outweigh the operational concerns yet. 

At least two speakers mentioned regulations and system validation. With the rapid advances in technology in this field, how do you see the regulatory framework keeping pace with the technology and remaining relevant? 

Dr Jerome Gormley: I believe governtmental/defence/naval regulatory and safety administration needs to work more closely with civilian agencies, both labs and e.g. DNV-GL. Together there is a lot of work going on but much of it is duplicative due to lack of trust or minor variances in conops. 

Unlike MCM, ASW requires speed to chase targets. USVs seem to have an advantage over UUVs. What is the opinion of the panel?

Dr Jerome Gormley: Agreed, primarily due to power/energy limitations in the UUV platforms.

Dr Alain Maguer: Depending on the ASW missions, speed could not be the main requirement. My view is that both technology USV and UUV will have a role to play in ASW.

As UUV capabilities expand, do the speakers expect that the field will be dominated by a few large platforms (elephants) or swarms of smaller disposable ones (ants)?

Dr Jerome Gormley: Both will have roles to play. A family of systems, of varying sizes and capabilities, will evolve. Consider transportation - everything from scooters to giant mining trucks evolved to fill their niches. Regarding the sense of timescale... convolve the technological advances with a ~20-year-long human adaptability response.

Dr Alain Maguer: Both. A lot of operational research work (OR) are done by many nations to analyze how unammned systems (either big or small or sometimes big and small) could fullfill martitime missions. I forsee myself that both solutions, big or small, will bring something. I also ostrongly expect that unmanned systems when started to be used by the operational communtiy will unveal new potential missions we did not think at all at the beginning.

If evolution is in the direction of large, complex and costly vehicles, but the mission requirements have not been properly defined, is there a danger that these vehicles will remain an interesting solution looking for a problem?

Dr Jerome Gormley: Yes in the short term. In the longer view, I believe there will be significant roles for all sizes of UUVs.

Are there some guiding principles and corresponding metrics against which to manage the acceptance of an autonomous 'system of systems'? 

Nils Størkersen: There are ongoing work on principles and standards for handling systems-of-systems, i.e. the MAPLE initiative in UK and work on Nato STANAGs at CMRE.

Alain Maguer: I would say NOT YET. Autonomous systems being non deteminisitic there is a huge need of doing the proper research to define principles and metrics for the acceptance of autonomous systems f systems.

What does the road look like to achieve trust and confidence in maritime autonomous systems?

Nils Størkersen: Start with the simple stuff, and build confidence over time. Learning by doing. Spiral development. Extensive testing and experimentation. Make systems robust in the first place. It is not the high tech that is killing you, it's the low tech. Trust and confidence has been achieved in the offshore business using this philosophy. 

How far are we from replacing crewed ocean going naval platforms with autonomous vehicles in a tactical underwater and surface role?

Nils Størkersen: The offshore business (survey industry) is doing operations today with endurances of three days using AUVs and USVs in concert (ref Ocean Infinity). BE/NL are in already procurement for autonomous MCM systems away from mother ship with FOC before 2030. Also Norway, Germany, France, UK are planning FOC before 2030.

This answer is also relevant for another audience question: According to the real need of autonomy for UUVs, decision autonomy as well as energy autonomy, especially for long range missions, what do you think about the state of today accessible autonomy? When do you foresee sufficient experience to routinely using UUVs for military missions in crisis area, away from port base?

How are we cyber-protecting these capabilities?

This answer is also relevant for the question: What is your opinion about the necessity for research on the cyber security of AUVs? For example for jamming or hacking of AUVs? And for using this for harbor protection?

Alain Maguer: Performance in autonomy mainly comes from massive use of advanced IT technology as core of the drones. Unfortunately an obvious drawback is that unmanned wireless systems are highly exposed to risks related to the IT subsystems. Cybersecurity is no more an option for drones. It is mandatory by design. Recent unmanned car  hacks are a great example… selectively modifying communications and commands so they can take control or affect what the vehicle does. This has a potentially terrifying result. You can easily imagine what this kind of attack could have on a lethal autonomous system. However, for obvious reasons, detailed security measures cannot be unveiled but work is done to identify the potential threats and their proper mitigation methods to ensure mission execution, communication, data storage and advanced algorithms IP. It is usually considered that cyber threats include:

  • Availability: capability to provide the expected service
  • Confidentiality: capability to protect data against access from unauthorized personnel
  • Integrity: capability to guarantee IT materials (hardware, software, data) origin

Are armed UUVs seen as an emerging threat ?

Alain Maguer: Yes, as we aware of work done by potential opponents. Russian Nerpa UUV is designed to be used for protecting the bridges, ports, ships and other navy objects against the enemy divers. Currently, the companies are working on integrating the weapon system with the drone. Alternatively, this vehicle can be also loaded with explosives and used as a suicide drone. I would like to stress that autonomous systems, probably lethal, would probably used by our opponents that will go over the ethical issues that our community will consider needed to be solved before using autonomous systems for defence. Autonomous systems countermeasures is definitely for me a very important topic that NATO nations should invest in. 

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