The US Navy has just taken delivery of a ship designed to operate autonomously at sea for up to 30 days.
Austal USA manufactured the vessel, has effectively added autonomous capabilities to a catamaran-style Spearhead class expeditionary fast transport (EPF) similar to those the biz has been building for the US Navy since 2012.
All Spearhead-class vessels include the Australian multinational’s machinery control systems (MCS), which “allow the ship to be minimally manned by centralizing machinery operations to the bridge.” However, this one – USNS Apalachicola (EPF-13) – is the first craft to be fitted with automated maintenance, health monitoring and mission readiness software that is expected to enable it to conduct “up to 30 days of operation without human intervention,” Austal announced.
With a hull length of 103 meters (337 feet), Apalachicola will be the US Navy’s largest-ever autonomous craft. Spearhead-class vessels have a maximum speed of 40 knots, a maximum payload capacity of 544 metric tons, and a draft of just 3.8 meters (12.5 feet) – meaning it’s also fast and can operate in quite shallow waters for its size.
USNS Newport, the 12th ship of the Spearhead class and sister ship to the Apalachicola
EPF-13 will also be the first Spearhead-class ship to include support for V-22 vertical takeoff and landing flight operations as well as launch and recovery of rigid hull inflatable boats 11 meters long.
Between its existing and new capabilities, Apalachicola will “open up so many opportunities for unmanned missions in various operations, as an autonomous prototype,” according to Austal CEO Paddy Gregg. The vessel could be used in future operations as an unmanned missile platform, anti-submarine weapon, radar and sensor craft, or drone mothership.
That’s not to say that Apalachicola won’t operate with at least some crew – Austal wasn’t clear on how much onboard space had to be sacrificed to add the computing power required to make it autonomous. In its basic configuration, the Spearhead class supports crew berthing for 41 sailors, embarked troop berthing for an additional 104 people, and airline-style seating for an additional 312 people – presumably Marines being ferried a short distance.
Autonomous boats still need meat-based assistants
You may remember IBM and marine research nonprofit ProMare’s attempts at sailing a fully automated ship across the Atlantic Ocean in 2021 and 2022. If you do, you’ll likely recall how both attempts ended: poorly.
In 2021, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) set sail for the US with plans to trace the original journey of the vessel that carried more than 100 disaffected English religious extremists to North America in 1620.
MAS made it three days before a mechanical failure took it out of commission.
A second attempt last April resulted in a mechanical failure necessitating a port call for repairs, and a little over a week later the craft experienced an electrical fault that forced it to set course for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Which is in the wrong country.
The MAS did eventually reach Plymouth, but it’s hard to call the mission a success given it required two unplanned maintenance stops.
With those ill winds at its back, it’s unclear whether Austel intends, or the Navy plans, to keep a skeleton crew onboard the Apalachicola to avoid it having to be followed by a support vessel, which would severely limit its “autonomous capability.” We posed this question to Austal but didn’t get a response. ®