June 6, 2019 – The Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division, Keyport and Undersea Unmanned Vehicle Squadron One (UUVRON-1) partnered to complete initial sea tests for a pair of prototype unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) that offer a multifunctional platform capable of performing a variety of missions for the Navy.
The innovative “micro UUV” can be configured with a broad spectrum of capabilities, thereby enhancing the Navy’s ability to complete various missions and extend the reach of the fleet; including near-shore and denied areas.
“We had a sponsor who came to Keyport and said they’d like to develop and test some different capabilities that would be best suited for a small, portable, unmanned undersea vehicle,” said Greg Vandiver, NUWC Division, Keyport’s Customer Advocate for research and development customers. “A small team was formed here about a year and a half ago to acquire two commercial, off-the-shelf UUVs to start developing some of these capabilities and then testing them. Part of the project was to develop not just the capabilities within the UUV, but also the ability to have Sailors deploy the vehicles from multiple platforms.”
A considerable amount of engineering was needed to take the commercial UUVs and bridge the gap to ready them for military use. One of the most significant breakthroughs was the development of an advanced homing system. NUWC Division, Keyport and UUVRON-1 worked closely to identify numerous enhancements needed to get the UUVs ready for the fleet, including a new power system, modifying software and swapping numerous parts.
“Our team did some pretty significant modifications on the vehicle, the most significant being a complete re-design of the battery system,” said Vandiver.
Through collaboration with the UUV manufacturer, the NUWC Division, Keyport engineers utilized a co-pilot called the “backseat driver” to assist the UUV’s standard navigation computer with the newly added functions, such as a homing system.
The team used the additive manufacturing technique known as 3D printing to create several of the components needed for the modifications, including a new “mast” inside the vehicle for mounting various new components. The 3D-printed mast was a creative use of available space, allowing NUWC Division, Keyport to deliver a densely packaged, autonomous UUV that can be packed into a medium-sized suitcase for transport and storage.
Initial testing done by NUWC Division, Keyport engineers was successful, but the major tests were conducted at sea by NUWC Division, Keyport engineers working with the Sailors of UUVRON-1. Since the fall of 2017, the vehicles have undergone three extensive tests in the Pacific, each one providing a great deal of data to improve the design of the vehicles.
“The Navy pushes for rapid prototyping to get the capability in the hands of the warfighter sooner,” said Vandiver. “It doesn’t have to be 100%, and you don’t expect it to be a production-grade item yet, but get it tested so you can take your lessons learned and keep improving.”
Vandiver said every round of testing improved the fleet’s new tool.
The next steps for this project could include creating a “program of record” for the micro UUV. A program of record is the first step in creating the infrastructure needed to give civilian industry the guidance to create new products the Navy can utilize and produce them on a larger scale for fleet-wide use.
Vandiver said the project has been an example of both excellent engineering innovation and an excellent partnership between NUWC Division, Keyport and UUVRON-1. The team, in just under two years, took a product available to the public, modified its design to meet U.S. warfighter needs, and delivered an operational tool at a reduced cost to the taxpayer.