Second Long-Range Test for U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vessels

U.S. Navy unmanned surface vessel long-range autonomous test
File photos of one of the test vessels which recently conducted the endurance long-range tests (Defense Department Strategic Capabilities Office photo)

Published Jun 8, 2021 2:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy continues to push forward with its efforts to experiment and test autonomous surface shipping. One of the vessels in the Ghost Fleet Overlord Surface program recently completed the second long-range test including a transit of the Panama Canal focusing on the endurance of the vessel as the Navy plans to expand and accelerate its work with unnamed vessels.

The unmanned vessel, named Nomad traveled 4,421 nautical miles from the Gulf Coast, passing through the Panama Canal, to the West Coast. Remote mission command and control for the endurance voyage was conducted from an Unmanned Operations Center onshore manned by the U.S. Navy from Surface Development Squadron One. The vessel operated in autonomous mode for 98 percent of the voyage while the transit of the Panama Canal was in manual mode.

The Nomad’s voyage was part of a repositioning of the vessels to San Diego from their previous base on the Gulf Coast. According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), which in partnership with the U.S. Navy oversees the program, the voyage provided an opportunity for extended testing of vessel endurance, autonomous operations, and interoperability of government command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems with vendor autonomy, hull mechanical and hull electrical systems.

“This is another significant milestone for SCO’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program and supports the Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework by adding a second Overlord vessel to the West Coast,” said SCO Director Jay Dryer. “The SCO Ghost Fleet Overlord program serves to inform Navy prototype efforts by integrating mature technologies to accelerate Service priorities and is a key piece of the build a little, test a little, and learn a lot philosophy articulated in the Navy Unmanned Campaign Framework.” 

The Ghost Fleet is currently using two modified Expeditionary Fast Transports. Each measures approximately 195 feet and is capable of operating at up to 35 knots. The first long-distance transit was completed in October 2020 using the Ranger. She also sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast with a transit of the Panama Canal.

The Nomad USV joins the Ranger USV at the new West Coast homeport to participate in fleet experimentation exercises. The Navy reports that the tests are designed to further mature the autonomy systems, demonstrate system reliability, and explore employment concepts for coordinated operations with manned combatants. The command-and-control systems are also undergoing stress testing as they continue to develop the program. Both vessels will provide key system data, enable fleet operator feedback, and demonstrate capabilities essential to the continued maturation and development of USV concepts of operation.

The Ghost Fleet Overlord program is currently in its second phase, which began in September 2019 and focuses on the integration of government-furnished command-and-control systems and payloads and more complex and challenging naval operations experimentation. Phase II is being conducted with the same vessels and industry teams that took part in Phase I and will conclude in early 2022, at which point both Ghost Fleet Overlord vessels will transition to the Navy for further experimentation.

The Ghost Fleet Overlord program, executed by SCO in partnership with Program Executive Office, Unmanned and Small Combatants, is playing a central role in informing the Navy’s new classes of USVs and serving as part of extensive technical risk-reduction efforts.

“Our close partnership with SCO on the Overlord program is accelerating the technology demonstration, CONOPs [concept of operations] development, and operational command and control of unmanned surface vessels in direct alignment with the Navy’s plans,” said Captain Pete Small, Navy Program Manager for USVs.

In September 2020, the Navy awarded a series of contracts for studies designed to contribute to the development of its future Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) program. The Department of Defense currently has additional Ghost Fleet Overlord prototype USVs are under construction. They will also be used to expand and accelerate the Navy’s experimentation and testing of unmanned vessel operations.