What Role for USVs in Australian Defence?

By Robbin Laird

With Australia looking to ramp up their defense capabilities over the long term and in the short term, unmanned systems will have to play an expanded role.

In part this has to do with manpower shortages, and in part this has to do with the need to build up local defense capabilities to support Australia in a crisis.

This can come through having a local connection to an overseas developer and producer or by having a local developer and producer provide a capability.

There is also a clear opportunity to mix and match such capabilities because unmanned systems can operate together to provide modular task force capabilities to a manned platform or element or to simply work together as remote systems.

Finding ways to do both will be critical to Australia’s way ahead in defense.

During my September 2022 visit to Australia, I had a chance to talk with Robert Dane, the CEO of Ocius, about one way ahead for Australia in the maritime autonomous systems domain.

In 1996, Robert Dane, a passionate sailor and environmentalist, invented and patented the ‘solarsail’ a single device that could harness sun and wind energy in a seaworthy way, and designed the first ‘solarsailor’ prototype which won the Advanced Technology Boat Race in Canberra in 1997. In 2001, the first commercial ‘solarsailor’ ferry using the technology won the Australian Design Award of the Year. Robert is Intel Environment Laureate 2007, the WWF Future Maker 2012 and in 2017 Robert was awarded the Spitfire Memorial Defence Association Fellowship.

Given his interest in solar powered boats, it is not surprising that he has spearheaded an effort to develop and build solar power Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USVs). This is how Dane described the journey so far for the company and the evolution of its core Bluebottle platform. “At the INDO PACIFIC Conference in Sydney in 2013, we displayed our first USVs and got the attention of Thales Australia and Defence. In 2015, we were  awarded our first innovation contract, namely, to build an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) USV. We redesigned our prototype boats to be able to take a large non-spooling winch to undertake such a mission and to deploy arrays at significant depths.

“Then in 2017, we received an innovation contract to work our boats in a combined operation to deliver an intelligent network in a maritime environment. We combined two Bluebottles together with simulated assets to do team behaviors. Then we received a contract in 2020 to build five Bluebottles. We now have seven Bluebottles which have taken on trials and on operations.”

Dane noted that they then took four Bluebottles for trials off of Darwin and then brought their boats to Ashmore Reef which is 840 kilometers from Darwin.  According to Dane: “It took us 4-5 days to get there and 5-10 days to get back. But while stationed there for weeks at a times, operating with wind, wave and solar powering cameras and radar we were able to detect foreign fishing vessels. For the Maritime Border Command (MBC), this meant that we could detect illegal boats with  uncrewed vessels, provide data to manned vessels to determine their own course of action.

“In other words, with our USVs it is not necessary for the manned vessels to waste their time on generating surveillance data; they could leave that to us. And they could focus on what they need to do, which is to use the data to determine what actions they needed or chose to do.”

They spent a month in the Ashmore Reef area and within a month had made a major impact on helping the Maritime Border Command surveil the area. As Dane put it: “We could stay out there continuously, and we could patrol with our sail down 350 meters off the reef and be photographing, with high-res cameras. We could see people walking on the reefs with their boats in the background. And we would notify Border Force. And they’d come steaming over the horizon and the foreign fishing vessels would depart quickly and we’d be able to say where they went and then the Border Force would be able to go and nab them. And when they said, “It wasn’t us,” the Maritime Border Patrol could say, “Well, yes it was. Here’s a picture of you and your boat.”

There are three reefs 40 miles apart and we could have a Bluebottle on each reef and patrolling the reef up and filming developments in the area which we sent to the Maritime Border Command for their follow-up.” “And within a month we basically cleaned up Rowley Shoals from having something like 30 foreign fishing vessels on it to having zero. And that had never happened before

One aspect which we discussed was the software development approach underlying Blue Bottle. As Dane put it: “I just put a deposit on a Tesla  and paid $10,000 in 2022 for the autonomous driving package, but for the lifetime of the car I’ll get upgrades. In 2025, the person buying that same car may have to pay more, because software will be better, but I get lifetime upgrades and Tesla gets the money now to develop it.

“So we’re giving people basically the same deal so allow us to improve our software. And the data that we’re getting now and the feedback and the improvements in networking and the autonomy, and denied comms are clearly going to change as we change the software.

“With the focus on software development as an ongoing effort, what we’re doing is an exponential feedback loop. The more boats you’ve got out there and the more hours you’ve got out there, the better they get. And I don’t think Navy wants to buy the 2022 version of a Bluebottle. They want to buy, a platform that gets smarter and better and carries smarter and better things.

“Over the last 20 years we’ve lived Moore’s law. Sensors and devices that we’re putting on now, 20 years ago would’ve cost $400,000 and weighed 400 kilos and used 400 watts, but now they’re a chip. It’s extraordinary what’s happening, and the uncrewed world is driving and taking advantage of sensors becoming  lighter, smaller, and requiring lower power.”

Another aspect of the driving force of software is how to look at the future of the ADF and the security force. They don’t have to wear unforms to be part of the direct defence of Australia. And they can be dispersed on a digital grid to avoid concentration which creates a target.

Dane emphasized that they had a close relationship with the university community. “We have two buildings at the University of New South Wales in Sydney 70m apart. One is an old tram shed building, which has front and back mezzanine access and  an overhead crane fit for purpose for ‘production-line’ building with hulls coming one end from boatbuilders and robots going out the front. The other building is clean work and office space and our watchfloor. And, with the university we’ve harnessing the talent from their solar car and robot soccer games teams. Bluebottles are doing teaming behaviors where they talk to each other,  they know the rules of the game and they know what the coach’s game plan so they act independently  without having to be told what to do.”

They have interns working with them from the university. In a perspective where mobilization becomes necessary, these students become the Sgt. York’s of their day, although don’t expect them to understand readily the analogy.

In addition, building uncrewed vehicles can be done exploiting non exotic materials for a defense and security capability, which can allow for a rapid build out within Australia during a crisis. Dane reinforced this point as follows:

“Ocius has made great pains not to use any exotic materials or anything that’s ITAR affected. We basically, in Australia, have a store called Bunnings. It’s like your Home Depot. All our exotic materials come from Bunnings. Our Chief Engineer says, “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.” Our platform is pretty good and getting better, and we put them out there till something breaks. Our aim is we don’t want to make it more expensive or more complicated than it needs to be to deliver payloads and capability in all conditions to wherever people want them.”

The featured photo: Bluebottle USV with ABFC Thaiyak off Ashmore Reef.
UAV Photo taken courtesy ABFC Thaiyak Crew.

Credit: https://ocius.com.au/usv/#overview

According to Australian Ministry of Defence press release about Operation Resolute:

The seventh rotation of Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Group (RFSG) used Bluebottle USVs, developed by Ocius Technologies, which can provide a 24/7 on-water surveillance capability, with the flexibility to be readily manoeuvred to respond to emerging surveillance requirements or tasks.

During the two-week deployment in October, the contingent conducted surveillance and reconnaissance on and around remote islands off north Western Australia for foreign fishing vessels and evidence of illegal activities. The contingent of 18 personnel was drawn primarily from Northwest Mobile Force (NORFORCE) and 10th Force Support Battalion, with attachments from the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment and 1st Combat Signal Regiment.

Major Alexander Brent, the Maritime Border Command (MBC) Liaison Officer to Rotation 7, said the use of the Bluebottles, and the embedding of an Ocius employee within the task unit headquarters, added significant capability to the operation.

“In addition to persistent surveillance, we were able to use the Bluebottles to conduct more specific reconnaissance tasks, such as beach landing site reconnaissance and avenues of approach to specific islands in advance of the ground force.

“By controlling the Bluebottles remotely, the ground force was free to be able to move independently of the USVs (uncrewed surveillance vessels) and focus on other tasks, such as onshore reconnaissance and patrolling, while still benefiting from what the Bluebottles collected.”

The trial by NORFORCE will likely inform future teaming with unmanned maritime assets to support amphibious and littoral combat manoeuvres.   As one of three Regional Force Surveillance Units which form the 2nd Division’s RFSG, NORFORCE provides a persistent screen in northern Australia, living by the motto ‘Ever Vigilant’.

Several times a year the RFSG screen is supported by enabling assets, including medical teams, remote command-and-control nodes and Australian Border Force (ABF) assets to enhance the effectiveness of the screen as part of Operation Resolute.   

NORFORCE Patrol Master, Captain Stephen Sewell, said the efforts increased situational awareness of illegal activities in the region. “The soldiers conducted surveillance from observation posts, dismounted patrols across the islands and patrols in the littoral environment by watercraft,” CAPT Sewell said.

“Working alongside the Bluebottle uncrewed surveillance vessels, as well as ABF Dash-8 aircraft, the information our contingent gathered will enable potential responses from other government agencies.”

The contingent conducted surveillance and reconnaissance of about 5500 square kilometres.

Major Brent said inter-agency cooperation was vital for the continued success of operations like Resolute.