Navy tests autonomous transit for high-speed freighter

An expeditionary fast transport vessel operates off the coast of Haiti. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jack D. Aistrup)

WASHINGTON: The Navy is preparing a high-speed transport vessel to become the first “fully operational U.S. naval vessel” capable of autonomously moving through a commercial sea lane, a major step up from the relatively smaller drones the service has previously transited autonomously.

The Navy puts the ship, an Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF), through a series of test events called “Unmanned Logistics Prototype Trials,” designed to challenge the ship in autonomous navigation, ship handling and transfer. of control between manned and unmanned modes, according to a July 29 service statement.

“The autonomous capabilities demonstrated by this prototype system represent a major technological advancement for the EPF platform, the Navy as a whole and our industrial partners. EPF-13 will be the first fully operational U.S. Navy vessel to possess autonomous capability, including the ability to operate autonomously in a commercial vessel traffic lane,” said Tim Roberts, a senior the Navy overseeing the effort.

The Navy also plans to test the ship’s ability to navigate at night and in different weather and sea states.

“These trials will establish crucial foundations for autonomous vessel operations, including vessel meet-and-evade maneuvers and compliance with international regulations for the avoidance of collisions at sea,” the statement said. A Navy spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions from Breaking Defense about when the tests are taking place.

The Navy has been experimenting with autonomous maritime navigation in recent years and has successfully sailed its Sea Hunter mid-size unmanned surface vessel prototype between San Diego and Hawaii on several occasions.

But the difference between autonomous travel for Sea Hunter and an EPF is significant. The first, weighing around 140 tons, is a prototype that was built from scratch with the idea that it will one day cross the ocean with minimal, if any, human intervention. The latter is a military freighter, designed to transport personnel, vehicles, supplies and other materials overseas and is almost 10 times larger.

On the industry side, Austal, which is building the EPF and last year received a contract to begin developing the EPF-13’s autonomous capabilities, L3 Harris and General Dynamics are assisting the Navy with testing.

Separately, Austal, HII, Lockheed, Fincantieri Marinette Marine, Bollinger Shipyards and Leidos-owned Gibbs & Cox all received follow-on contracts on Friday to continue studies related to the Navy’s large unmanned surface ship program.

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