Tomorrow’s Tech: The Maritime Interdiction Operation Unmanned Ground Vehicle

MIO UGV System


By Patric Petrie

Every year the U.S. Navy performs thousands of maritime interdiction operations worldwide to enforce embargoes, intercept contrabands, prevent drug and human smuggling, and fight piracy. These operations are usually conducted by visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) teams using rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs).

Most boarding operations are “compliant” (i.e., the target ship complies with the Navy’s order to stop, and lowers a ladder for the boarding team), but a fair number are noncompliant, where orders are ignored. In this case, the RHIB has to match the speed of the suspect ship, and team members must board using rope ladders with grappling hooks.

Once aboard, the VBSS team quickly secures the deck and the pilot house, and then begins a sweep of the rest of the ship. One of the most dangerous operations during this phase is the descent into the hull of the ship. The concept of operations may call for the dropping of flash-bang grenades down a ladder well, or a person hanging upside-down providing cover fire for others to rush down.

To assist VBSS teams in these operations, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Pacific has developed a Maritime Interdiction Operation Unmanned Ground Vehicle. It is a small mobile robot with video camera that can be thrown onto the deck of a ship from a RHIB for an advance look, down a hatch once the deck has been secured, or into individual ship compartments during clearing operations. It also has other tactical features such as an optical dazzler to stun potential opponents in a dark compartment before the team enters, the ability to swim on the water surface of flooded compartments or bilges, and the ability for one operator to control two robots, with one providing a rear-guard function (with motion detection) as the team moves ahead.

Working with VBSS teams and trainers, SSC Pacific’s unmanned systems group provided the overall concept development, key performance parameters, project management, and testing of prototypes. The actual design of the robots was performed under contract by Macro USA.

User tests were first conducted with VBSS trainers to determine the exact robotic-support requirements for operations, leading to the development of a set of key performance parameters for a robot that would meet their needs. Using these specifications, we competitively selected a developer, Macro USA, to build two prototype systems, each consisting of one controller and two robots (called Stingray). The prototypes were then demonstrated or loaned to Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine VBSS teams to collect feedback for a potential second-generation design.

The initial predevelopment discussions and user tests to determine the key performance parameters of the robot were with members of the Navy’s Maritime Security Squadron 3 and Afloat Training Group San Diego. These tests, conducted using robotic tools available at that time, revealed some surprising user requirements. Aside from establishing the ideal size and weight for a throwable robot, the tests revealed unique characteristics required for maritime tactical environments – such as appropriate wheel size to navigate ship deck gratings, no external antennas or tails that could get caught in a cluttered ship environment, positive buoyancy and the ability to traverse water surfaces, and elimination of operator-control-unit neck straps (to prevent their use in choking the operator during hand-to-hand combat).

The resulting prototype units exhibit these and other features that make them ideal tools for tactical use in the maritime environment: a drop rating of five meters onto a steel deck; the ability to climb over objects commonly found on ship decks, such as cables and chains; a waterproof capability up to one-meter depth for 30 minutes; high-traction wheels that can maintain position on a slippery deck in rough seas; steerable visible-light and near-infrared LEDs; visible strobe LEDs that can be activated to aid in locating the robot in darkness; a high-intensity LED dazzler to disorient opponents; rope and pole attachments to position the robots in hard-to-reach places or to use the robot as an extended hand-held sensor; and the ability for one controller to operate two robots, with the robot not being under active control having a motion-detection capability to act as a rear guard for the team.

Following the design and production of the prototypes by Macro USA, evaluations of the units were conducted by the III Marine Expeditionary Force VBSS team in Okinawa, Japan; the Coast Guard component of Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South at Opa Locka, Florida; and the Navy VBSS teams at Naval Station Mayport, Florida.

Feedback from user tests of the prototypes has been very positive. The warfighters have communicated a strong desire to have this system in their bag of tools. The Marine Corps even went one step further, expressing an interest in a variant of the system with more aggressive wheels, to be used on non-VBSS tactical missions.

The field of robotics is playing a more prominent role in warfare every day, with unmanned aerial vehicles providing overhead imagery or long-distance strike capabilities, unmanned ground vehicles defusing improvised explosive ordnance, and unmanned underwater vehicles providing environmental undersea maps.

No previous robotic capability, however, has been made available to support the dangerous naval mission of boarding potentially hostile vessels. This project aims to rectify that oversight.

The system will reduce risks to VBSS teams, providing a look-ahead capability before they enter dangerous situations, such as poking their heads up above the deck railing as they attempt to board a ship, descending down ladders into the interior of a boarded vessel, or clearing compartments where hostile opponents may be hiding. It also will reduce time and costs for searching for contraband hidden in bilges and flooded compartments.

The Maritime Interdiction Operation Unmanned Ground Vehicle is an asset built to support Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard missions and assists warfighters in all critical phases of interdiction operations. Currently, SSC Pacific is looking for support to execute the necessary modifications and enhancements identified through field tests of the prototype units, to better position the system for fielding.

About the author:

Patric Petrie is the lead staff writer for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.

About Future Force Staff