Unmanned and Unafraid: The Transformation of Naval Oceanography

Photo by Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command

By Dr. William Burnett and Dr. K. Todd Holland


The question is not will the Navy will use unmanned maritime systems in military operations, but rather how many will the Navy operate. This number will be on the low end of the scale if unmanned systems are used only for information data collection, scouting, and reconnaissance; the number will be on the high end of the scale if they are used in exclusively in combat. We already know that the Navy is using unmanned systems operationally on the low end of this scale. Now is the time to understand the lessons learned to make an enormous difference in how far and quickly the Navy can move toward the high end of the scale in the future. This article discusses the lessons learned from the naval oceanography community and how they are working closely with the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to incorporate new technologies and techniques into our systems.

Evolution of Unmanned Maritime Systems

For nearly two centuries, American Sailors have collected and interpreted ocean observations across the globe to conduct maritime operations and ensure military readiness. These environmental data were received by what is now the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (NMOC), which serves as the Navy’s physical battlespace awareness authority. Their mission is to define and apply the physical environment from the bottom of the ocean to the stars to ensure that the Navy has the freedom of action to deter aggression, maintain freedom of the seas, and win wars. America’s Navy starts with naval oceanography.

Too often, the Navy prefers to “fight through the weather” to achieve its objectives.  Unfortunately, fighting through the weather basically ignores the chaotic nature of the environment that requires operators to plan ahead and respond quickly to changing conditions. Weather gets a vote in the success or failure of any mission, and improper planning or inappropriate responses to various weather or ocean conditions can result in injury or death for Sailors.

Unmanned systems take the place of operations considered dull, dirty, or dangerous.  Today, thousands of remotely piloted vehicles are being operated by multiple services within the US military to: perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions; suppress enemy air defenses; and conduct offensive weapon strikes. The relative ease of deploying, operating, and retrieving remotely piloted vehicles has shifted emphasis from the knowledgeable Sailor at sea to the remote shore facility, where Sailors operate unmanned vehicles in the air, on the ocean surface, and underwater from great distances. While these vehicles have rapidly multiplied, the requirement to understand the environment is still a necessity for success.  The Air Force learned this lesson early on when they began operating remotely piloted aerial vehicles. They found that their vehicle loss rate increased dramatically due to issues caused by the lack of meteorological sensors to detect icing conditions in the atmosphere. In response, the Air Force initiated a program to include standard atmospheric sensors on theses platforms to observe and report real-time weather conditions. Remote pilots also began to receive preflight briefings to understand the types of weather conditions they would encounter in route.

These lessons should not be lost on the Navy as it begins large-scale production and operation of unmanned systems. As more and more autonomous vehicles maturate and integrate with the fleet, unmanned systems will assume key roles in defensive and offensive operations. A recent Senate report (National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018) states that “the Navy must increasingly leverage unmanned systems across all warfighting domains, but particularly on the sea surface and undersea.” The capability to collect oceanographic data has quickly changed with the employment of unmanned systems operating in the maritime domain. Naval oceanography is preparing to ensure the fleet can successfully navigate and conduct its operations without losing the equipment through better observation and understanding of the ocean surface and subsurface environmental conditions using unmanned vehicles.

NMOC is collaborating with NRL (both of which are located at the NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi) to meet the unmanned maritime system challenge. This team of research scientists and fleet operators is working on new ways of employing and exploiting unmanned systems to ensure naval oceanography provides the home field advantage to all Navy away games.

Naval Oceanography and Unmanned Maritime Systems

NMOC is assigned as a task group under US Fleet Forces Command, with operational authority responsible for 1,300 military members and 1,100 civilians located at 13 subordinate commands around the world.  Many of the members deploy on six oceanographic survey ships that operate in key ocean locations, continuously surveying the ocean floor and observing oceanographic conditions to inform fleet missions. Over the past 20 years, NMOC installed a suite of autonomous underwater vehicles on the ships to conduct over 1,800 missions surveying more than 100,000 square kilometers of ocean bathymetry.

NMOC also operates a fleet of 150 buoyancy gliders that measure ocean temperature and salinity (to approximately 1,000 meters’ depth). This glider fleet has traveled almost 250,000 kilometers and already collected more oceanographic profiles than the manned oceanographic survey fleet has in 75 years of operations. The world’s only military glider operations center is located at the Naval Oceanographic Office, providing 365-days-a-year overwatch of their glider fleet as well as other types of autonomous surface vehicles. Recently, the Naval Oceanographic Office set a world’s record for deploying and piloting more than 100 underwater gliders at one time without additional manpower or vessels.

NMOC, with the support of NRL, is developing the tactics, techniques, and procedures to deploy, pilot, and retrieve autonomous underwater vehicles to support global operations. All oceanographic observations collected by autonomous underwater and surface vehicles must be quickly received by the Naval Oceanographic Office, given proper quality control, and then catalogued, databased, and processed for fleet use. Department of Defense shared resource center supercomputers, also located at the Naval Oceanographic Office, process these data using the Navy’s coupled ocean data assimilation system (developed by NRL) to provide realistic representations of the vertical temperature and salinity structure, especially on continental shelves. The addition of observations collected by satellites, surface ocean drifters, and profiling floats forms the data assimilation mechanism for the Navy’s Global Ocean Forecast System operated by the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center.

Critical information such as seawater density and sound speed are critical parameters for fleet operations to ensure proper ballasting of underwater vehicles for effective missions at required operating depths. Improper ballast could cause a depth excursion and implode the vehicle or cause the vehicle to surface unexpectedly. Fresh water outflows, internal waves, ocean currents, and mixing of different frontal boundaries must be accounted for before deployment as well as throughout operations as these abrupt changes can quickly damage and scuttle underwater vehicles.

Autonomous underwater vehicles also must know the ocean bathymetry to avoid underwater hazards. Collisions with these hazards can and do occur on platforms operated by Sailors. In January 2005, for instance, USS San Francisco (SSN 711) collided with an undersea mountain about 675 kilometers southeast of Guam while operating at maximum speed at a depth of 160 meters. The collision was so serious that the vessel was almost lost; accounts detail a desperate struggle for positive buoyancy to surface after the forward ballast tanks were ruptured. All efforts required an “all hands on deck” approach to save the vessel.

Autonomous underwater vehicles will not have the luxury of a full crew to salvage the platform. The cost of each vehicle can range from $100,000 to almost $100 million for the largest-diameter vehicle—much less than the billions for a submarine—but the loss of a number of vehicles can become quite expensive over time. The Naval Oceanographic Office is responsible for the collection and distribution of hydrographic information to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to support the preparation of maps, charts, books, and geodetic products (10 U.S. Code 7921). These bathymetry data, ocean temperatures, and salinity observations must be used in the pre-mission planning and subsequent deployment and operations of the Navy’s unmanned maritime systems to ensure their missions are successful and properly retrieved.

Future Challenges

The NRL-NMOC partnership will improve autonomous vehicle mission success by bringing a holistic approach to operations. First, critical mission preplanning targeting a selected waterspace will rely on an accurate understanding of the environmental considerations for the where, when, and how to operate the platform. This understanding, provided by both advanced numerical forecasts and innovative observational approaches, will reduce the autonomous vehicle transit time and optimize the use of deployment assets such as naval oceanography survey ships. For persistent missions (longer than a few hours), a highly automated operational overwatch, housed as the Naval Oceanographic Office’s Glider Operations Center, will support 24/7 piloting and monitoring services. Once tactical control of the platform is complete, streamlined post mission operations will be implemented including novel launch and recovery assets, targeted depot-level maintenance, and high-resolution reconstruction analysis.

As the Navy’s use of unmanned maritime systems moves from remotely piloted to semiautonomous to fully autonomous operations, a number of scientific and technical challenges will emerge. For example, true autonomy will require an ability not only to receive accurate predictions of the future oceanographic environment, but also to couple observations from these vehicles sensing the same environment in real time. Ideally, these observations supporting autonomy would be directly passed back to the Naval Oceanographic Office to support future planning—as, more often than not, that observation made by the autonomous vehicle might be the only observation available in the area—but data transfer underwater and from remote areas is extremely bandwidth limited. These issues, while not yet fully defined, are now being considered and the following challenges are being addressed by the Naval Research and Development Establishment for use by naval oceanography.

•           Future autonomy will require efficient processing of onboard environmental sensor data to direct decision making. Automated decision systems at NRL are being developed not only to provide guidance on the positioning of multiple surface and underwater sensors for secure and persistent battlespace characterization, but also for optimal effect of data assimilation into model forecasts. In the future, a significant portion of this decision system capability will likely be moved forward to autonomous vehicles such that the routes and selected sensors can vary throughout missions.

•           Advanced communication and precision navigation technologies will need to be developed to enable autonomous swarm operations, especially across multiple domains (e.g., air, sea, and undersea). Local communication between vehicles is intimately tied to the amount of relevant information exchanged, so recent research projects to enhance onboard interpretation of information will enable greater coverage by smaller, less-expensive systems operating in a coordinated fashion and lessen the need for remote maneuver or piloting commands. Related technologies also will enable persistent operations at remote locales such as hydrographic surveying in the middle of the Pacific or operations under Arctic ice.

•           Enhanced data management and analysis capabilities, most probably involving machine learning and other artificial intelligence approaches, will be needed to interpret and forecast environmental effects on autonomous systems. There are multiple efforts within the Naval Research and Development Establishment that support improved understanding and display of autonomous systems operations (including mission planning, monitoring, diagnosis, and payload management). In addition, issues concerning human factors are being researched to address the level of control between pilots and autonomous systems, including assessments of trust.

•           Autonomous maritime systems require new locations to test and train new platforms, including the ability to create multiple swarms with cross-domain behaviors. Work is ongoing by NRL and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center to leverage the large physical operational area in the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico, by using deployable/retrievable portal instrumentation systems to support multiple stand-alone exercises in operationally relevant locations.

•           New approaches to enable rapid testing and evaluation of autonomous systems can overcome bureaucratic challenges with respect to validation, verification, and accreditation of new and potentially game-changing solutions. The Naval Research and Development Establishment is engaging in several technology exercises such as the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise and policies such as Other Transactional Authorities to engage early with fleet operators within NMOC for quick feedback so industry and academia can provide fast and flexible adjustments to meet operational requirements.


To answer the question poised at the beginning—we believe unmanned maritime systems will be operated in the high end of the scale. Future conflicts will be fought and won by employing fully autonomous vehicles. We hope this overview illustrates how critical our understanding of the environment is to keeping the unmanned maritime systems in the fight. Mother Nature gets a vote in every autonomous air, surface, and subsurface operation, and it is naval oceanography’s responsibility to know how her vote will be cast. With the help of the Naval Research and Development Establishment, the Navy can and will maintain maritime superiority by leveraging NMOC’s knowledge and capabilities with autonomous vehicles. As stated in chief of naval operations’ Design 2.0 Strategy, “The pace of competition has accelerated in many areas, achieving exponential and disruptive rates of change.” The Navy must seek the advantage wherever it can be found.

About the authors:

Dr. Burnett is the technical director to Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.

Dr. Holland works in the Marine Geosciences Division at the US Naval Research Laboratory. 3

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