As with UAV programs, unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) require a strong foundation of modeling and testing to make them operate safely and efficiently. The maritime environment offers some benefits and presents some challenges for monitoring unmanned systems.
For example, unlike UAV testing in the continental U.S., which has sparked some controversy and often requires special FAA permits and approvals, coastal U.S. UUV testing is much more flexible.
“You don’t need a special permit,” says Stephen Froelich, director and general manager of mission and unmanned systems for Lockheed Martin, which has developed such programs as the Remote Mine-hunting Vehicle (RMV) for the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship countermine package, and the autonomous unmanned vehicle (AUV) Marlin for the gas and oil industry to inspect its offshore facilities.
Lockheed’s location off Florida’s east coast provides prime UUV testing grounds, Froelich says. “Most of our integration and testing is done right out this window,” he says, nodding to the east. “We’re a half mile from the sea.”
He says, “We do have an extra-sized area that we publish and work out with the Coast Guard. So we have a box. The only time we have a problem is if we were to tether something to the ground permanently. Then you have to go through all the normal permitting.”
There is one taboo area for UUV testing, though. “Now with Florida and national laws, you can’t affix anything to a reef anymore,” he says.
“If we were going to put down a minefield,” he says, “it has to be off the reefs. The reefs tend to run in strips — a 15-foot reef, a 70-foot reef, then a 90-foot reef. They tend to follow underwater channels. As long as we’re operating where we’re supposed to be we don’t need permitting.”
Getting the UUVs out to the mock minefields is often no problem, he says. They can be towed out to open water very quickly. “The inlet in high seas can get rough,” he says, adding the UUVs can take the pounding. “Our limitations are the human beings we send out,” he says. “We will call a mission [off] due to weather because of humans. It’s never due to the system.”
Lockheed enforces some of its own policies “We never operate at night. It’s too dangerous,” he says. The issue is not the UUV itself, but concern over local “traffic” of boats and other craft operating in the area. Lockheed operates only during daylight hours during the week.