Bluebottle USVs and Carving Out a Way Ahead within Australian Security and Defence

By Robbin Laird

I remember quite well an interview I did with Marines early in the Osprey transition. One of the members of what they referred to as “Osprey Nation” made the point that “We are no longer a bar act!.”

I think that expression generally applies to the point when technology enables a force to think differently about its operations triggered by the new technology which has been incorporated into its operations. I believe that maritime autonomous systems are getting closer and closer to the point where I can have that kind of interview.

A good example of the progress in this domain is with regard to the Australian-built USV called Bluebottle which is a product of Ocius Technology based in Sydney Australia. During my current visit to Australia, I had a chance to talk once more with Robert Dane, the founder and CEO of the company about the progress made since my last visit in the March/April 2023 timeframe.

During my March/April 2023 visit, I was able to come to the Ocius facilities in Sydney. The company is located adjacent to the University of New South Wales in Sydney also known as UNSW. It is one of the founding members of Group of Eight, a coalition of Australian research-intensive universities.

As the University has noted: “Ocius Technology is a leading innovator in maritime robotics and machine learning. They develop uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) powered by renewable energy that can remain at sea for months are a time. The USVs are applied in a wide range of uses including defence, border patrol, environmental monitoring, and scientific exploration.

“The Ocius team, most of whom are UNSW alumni, are based at Randwick campus. Co-location allows the team to work closely with researchers, make use of facilities and equipment, and engage students and PhDs.”

My visit certainly confirmed what was highlighted in the video. But what was most impressive to me is the clearly focused effort. Robert Dane is focused on building a platform which can deliver a core capability – a robust, slow-moving USV which can hold a variety of payloads, and operate for long durations at sea in a variety of sea states.

And the team I met was highly dedicated and innovative and closely integrated. This kind of teaming with a major research university is important especially when one considers the nature of this type of maritime autonomous vessel.

It is designed to work with a variety of payloads and to do so with comms and software which is constantly evolving. This is a different capability which requires in my view a different type of organization, one where R and D is not the launcher of a capability but integral to the reality of dynamic changing capability.

A key point is that Dane does not over promise. His ships can deliver persistent surveillance and if there is a C2 payload, persistent communications. My discussion with him and his colleagues on 9 September 2023 focused on recent activities for the team since we last met in April 2023 in Sydney.

Dane indicated that use of the Bluebottles for maritime protection had continued. Marine Parks Australia was continuing use of the Bluebottles in patrol of Marine Parks off of the NSW Coast.

Bluebottles deploying for Marine Parks Australia mission. Credit: Ocius

He noted that they had monitored three areas and one of them was quite large, 150 nautical miles off of the coast. The presence of the USVs led to fisherman not entering the sanctuaries so deterrence in effect by detection worked quite well.

Dane described how Bluebottle is used in this type of mission in an interview published recently in Defence Connect:

“One application of the Bluebottle is to combat illegal fishing and transnational crime. Typically, when criminal actors operate in Australian waters, we deploy planes to maintain ISR over their activities. Planes are easily spotted, and the criminal elements know that it will take time, often 10–12 hours for a patrol boat to arrive – providing ample time for the criminals to depart.

“With the Bluebottle, we can sit with our sail down within 800 metres of the illegal boats, document their activities via high-resolution cameras, relay the images and the direction they flee to the Australian Border Force or Royal Australian Navy vessels so they can interdict.”

They also have conducted a mission tracking whales in support of the oil and gas industry. As the industry works their undersea efforts, they are concerned not to impact on whale migration.

The Bluebottle carried a payload to monitor whale sounds and that information was then sent to Canada where specialists rapidly analyzed the identified patterns to assist in the effort guiding activities of the industry.

The Bluebottle tracking whales. Credit: Ocius

In their September 2023 newsletter, this is how the effort was described:

“Project Moby: was a combined demonstration by Ocius Technology, JASCO Applied Sciences Australia, and Blue Ocean Marine Tech Systems (BO-MTS) over 5 days in September.

“Ocius successfully showed near real-time detection, classification, and tracking of marine mammals using uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) off the coast of Perth. The five-day demonstration focused on detecting humpback whales during their southern migration.

“The array and JASCO payload were installed and tested into the Bluebottle winch in three days. The Bluebottle was launched and recovered from a local boat ramp in Perth and autonomously sailed to the area of operation.

“The system processed data from the array and reported hundreds of thousands of whale detections in real time, which were sent to Canada for analysis and within 10 minutes were classified as whales.

“During the mission, operating in a region with high currents, the Bluebottle operated at minimal throttle (less than 25% throttle) for over 66% of the mission and 55% of the time with no propeller at all i.e., sailing or wave power, making our extremely quiet platform even quieter.”

As indicated above, the Bluebottle can work with a variety of payloads. This month they are participating in Autonomous Warrior 23 with five boats, which are indeed carrying a variety of payloads.

On one of the boats it is carrying a gateway communications payload. This payload is designed to relay subsurface communications to satellites which can then relay the coms to where desired. Because this payload could be carried on several bluebottle USVs in an area of interest, the location of the subsurface assets would be difficult to trace from the communication links.

The flexibility of the ships in carrying a range of ISR and C2 payloads allows the wolfpack of USVs to deliver data and to move that data around a wide area network, thus forming an essential part of maze communication network and enabling a kill web enabled force. And because if might have ISR or C2 payloads or combinations thereof, it complicates an adversary’s tracking or targeting of core combat assets underwater.

Such a C2 Bluebottle could be part of a torpedo tracking network in moving data around a network to be used for defensive or offensive Navy actions to deal with threats from adversary torpedoes as well.

In addition, the September 2023 newsletter mentioned a new variant of the Bluebottle which they call Bluebottle BATHY.  This variant is designed to carry payloads relevant to the hydrographic market.

According to the newsletter: “This month Ocius commissioned a new diesel hybrid Bluebottle, BATHY. In Japan, Bluebottle BEACON showed us that bulky hydrographic/bathymetric sensors on the keel require a lot of power and cause significant drag. Furthermore, a hydrographic/bathymetric survey requires the boat to run accurate ‘lines’ in relation to the sea floor to ‘mow the lawn’, which uses a lot of propeller in strong currents.

“Renewable energy powered BEACON demonstrated hydrographic surveys in fair winds and currents off Perth, but in Japan, BEACON struggled. There were 2 cyclones in 2 months and massive currents around the volcanoes BEACON was trying to map, volcanoes which rise out of the sea from kilometres deep to 30m deep in a few hundred metres. BEACON completed part of her mission and sailed home safely.

“As a result of the trials in Japan, Ocius has designed, built and commissioned BATHY, uniquely designed for the Hydrographic market. BATHY looks like any other 22’ Bluebottle on the trailer except the payload bay contains a 5kW diesel generator and the keel, 400 litres of diesel. The keel also has a cut out for sensors of various shapes and sizes and a moon pool for large cables and plugs, meaning flexible installation of equipment.

“We believe diesel hybrid Bluebottles will be able to chart remote areas that are currently prohibitively expensive for crewed ships and unfeasible for the current range of diesel powered USVs. BATHY Bluebottles will be able to transit long distances unassisted using renewable power, support the large payloads with diesel once she has arrived and transmit high bandwidth live data using diesel electric power for up to 30 days at 3 knots.

“Ocius is planning to target hydrographic companies who do not wish to own or operate their own USVs. This distinguishes Ocius from existing competitors. As vessel contractors and operators, we believe this is the shortest path to scaling this part of the business. Full sea trials of BATHY will be conducted Oct – Dec.”

An important aspect of the maritime autonomous system effort is their ability to work in wolfpacks or to operate as a “team” so to speak. In the Defence Connect interview cited earlier, Dane provided insight with regard to how his team is dealing with this challenge:

“Under AMSA regulations, we have a human on the loop 24/7 as part of our ground control operation team. The operations are overseen by a senior watch officer who moves the fleet in accordance with the customer’s wishes.

“Meanwhile individual Bluebottles are overseen by more junior ground control operators. The number of vessels that each operator oversees is dependent on the intensity of the deployment, but generally, we aim for a “capability brick” of five, so that we have three Bluebottles are in the area of operations (AO), one in transit and one in maintenance.

“To pilot the vessels, operators would set a waypoint for the Bluebottle. The boat will then autonomously navigate to the waypoint, with the operators alarmed in the event of maritime traffic or weather events.

“We are striving to continuously refine our autonomous capabilities, including onboard machine learning that enables automated detection and classification of the Bluebottle’s high-resolution imagery.”

In short, progress is being made to the point that Bluebottles are entering the security force and are ready to part of the maritime autonomous element of the Navy as well