Over the past two decades unmanned aerial drones have transformed how the U.S. Air Force wages war, allowing it to surveil hostile territory and neutralize enemy targets without putting the lives of pilots at risk.
Next, the Navy is hoping it can employ its own unmanned vehicles to clear mines, scout unfamiliar territory or wage anti-submarine warfare. And big-name defense contractors are eagerly buying the rights to next-generation technologies that they think could enable a revolution in sea-based autonomy.
For years, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have invested in unmanned, autonomous drones of their own. And the New York-based defense contractor L3 Technologies is building out an entire business unit focused on sea-based autonomy, preparing for a future in which the Navy buys fewer aircraft carriers and more robots.
“I would predict there will come a time when every manned vessel has an autonomous capability built into it, might even be required by regulation,” said Bill Toti, a retired Navy submarine captain and now an executive at L3.
Over the past 18 months L3 has embarked on a slew of acquisitions focused on autonomous boats, submarines and their enabling technologies.
Late last year the company announced that it is teaming up with the defense giant Boeing to handle autonomous technologies, navigation and cybersecurity for the Navy’s “extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle” competition. In April of last year L3 bought a smaller firm called OceanServer Technology, a 15-year-old start-up that makes unmanned underwater vehicles.
Last summer it bought a company called Open Water Power, which focuses on specialized batteries that allow the subs to power themselves for longer periods of time. Last September it bought Adaptive Methods, a Centreville, Va.-based company that develops the advanced sensor and payload systems that go on unmanned underwater vehicles.
And 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.
Overseeing it all is Sean Stackley, a former Navy official who joined the company in January. In the Navy, Stackley served as assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, playing a lead role in setting the service’s technology acquisition priorities.
His hiring is part of a broader reorganization at L3, a publicly traded company whose most visible product has been 360-degree scanners that commercial fliers pass through at the airport.
He says the technology enabling such systems has only recently become available. For now, 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,” Stackley said. “About 10 to 20 years ago, a decision was made to think about using unmanned vehicles to sense and neutralize 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.”
He 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. The Air Force is working on robotic drones that could fly alongside fighter jets or scout ahead and absorb enemy fire. The Army has deployed small robots meant to defuse roadside bombs so soldiers don’t have to.
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. For now, about 60 percent of L3 ASV’s maritime business comes from commercial buyers, the rest being military customers.
“We’re integrating together various capabilities with an eye for not only where DOD is going," Stackley said, “but also where the world is going.”