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Unmanned systems are the future, Navy captain says

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” and the commanding officer of Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific says the drone industry should adopt the same mentality.

Navy Capt. Joseph Beel spoke at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association luncheon Tuesday in Mission Valley.

“We have to push the limits on where unmanned systems can go and what they can deliver, not what they do deliver today," he said.

As sequestration becomes a reality, that means learning to use unmanned systems in place of people.

"People cost a lot of money. We are going to learn how to do things with less people. Sequestration is an indication we aren’t able to spend as much on defense," Beel said.

Unmanned systems have the ability to become pervasive and augment fewer military forces and ships.

“Being able to keep them out there a long time and support forward presence,” Beel said, gives them the ability to thrive in dangerous and persistent environments and makes them the ideal replacement for costly manpower.

“If you need something for a long duration of time, it’s a great place for an unmanned system. Or anything that is high risk,” he said.

There needs to be better integration between unmanned and manned systems, he said.

An example of that effective pairing was just created on North Island: The HSM-35 is the Navy’s newest helicopter squadron that employs the MH-60 Romeo helicopter and the MQ-8B/C Fire Scout unmanned rotary-wing aircraft.

MAYPORT, Fla. (Dec. 1, 2012) An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle is secured inside the guided-missile frigate USS Klakering (FFG 42) as the ship returns from deployment. The Fire Scout unmanned helicopter detachment logged more than 500 flight hours in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility supporting anti-piracy operations and providing real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to combatant commanders. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman)

"It's the first composite Navy squadron that has unmanned systems and manned systems,” Beel said. “It’s an indication of great things to come.”

The squadron's plan is to support littoral combat ships, a class of relatively small vessels intended for use close to shore.

The Office of Naval Research’s goals related to autonomy are capability centric.

“It’s about less manning, smart systems, less people and agility,” Beel said.

When it comes to underwater detection, marine mammals have been known to beat top technologies. One of only two 1800s-era Howell torpedoes known to exist was recently found off San Diego by bottlenose dolphins being trained by the Navy, he said.

“Dolphins are extremely good at what they do. Their sonar is phenomenal,” he said. “But we’ve gotten a lot better with sensors and sonar-type systems.”

The Mk18 Swordfish, for example, was deployed and recovered during recent maritime exercises in the Arabian Gulf to help bomb-disposal teams.

“There’s a lot of expertise in the Navy in building unmanned vehicles, but the sensors and communications have always been big challenges too," he said. "The goal is to retire marine mammals, but I don’t think that will happen any time soon.”

Advancements in underwater unmanned vehicles are emerging, however.

One of the Navy’s most important research projects, he said, is the Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle.

“It’s groundbreaking — it’s an unmanned vehicle with its own unmanned vehicles,” he said. “It will bring a whole new type of capability that can deploy off ships and submarines.”

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