In its attempts to achieve and maintain dominance in the air, land, and maritime domains, the US government invests about USD17.5 billion annually in the US Navy’s research and development and science and technology efforts. Geoff Fein examines a number of naval research projects aimed at developing and eventually delivering new capabilities.
The potential to face off against a near-peer or peer adversary is leading the navy to invest in research efforts that will reap benefits both in the near and future terms. Aircraft and ships that can perform operations with no human intervention, using nature to power undersea sensors, developing advanced weaponry for future challenges, and finding personnel with the right skill set to operate unmanned systems are only just a small number of projects being worked on at ONR and SPAWAR.
One approach to naval R&D is carried out by Space and Naval Warfare (SPAWAR) Systems Command, has a systems centre in San Diego (SSC Pacific), California and inCharleston, South Carolina (SSC Atlantic).
"Our mission is focused on R&D, test and evaluation [T&E], in C4ISR, cyber, and space. We work basic and applied research all the way up through installations and fleet support. That gives us an interesting perspective," Dr Stephen Russell, SPAWAR chief technology officer, director of science and technology, told Jane’s .
"When we are doing the R&D up front we are [looking to eventually understand] how to link up to the systems, and systems of systems; how they have to interface; and ultimately, how they have to be fielded," he said. "That is unique to have that capability in one organisation."
One of the efforts SSC Pacific is working on is small satellite development, Russell noted. "It is all in the R&D stages; there are no formal acquisition programmes yet," he said. "We are exploring the possibility of how to reconstitute capabilities in space using small satellites."
The small satellite effort provides an opportunity in many cases to work with small businesses to introduce some of their technologies and field them more quickly than some of the larger platforms such as the navy’s Mobile User Objective System communications satellite constellation can offer, Russell added.
"Those large satellites take a long time in development, so we are looking at opportunities to use more innovative technologies and field them on smaller platforms," he said.
One ONR-funded INP that SSC Pacific is working on is the Forward Deployed Energy Communications Outpost (FDECO). One of SPAWAR’s senior technologists is leading that programme, looking for opportunities to generate power sources in the undersea environment and then use them to create an undersea network.
FDECO could provide an undersea option for moving data if other communications capabilities were disrupted or shut down, Russell said.
One power technology SSC Pacific is investigating involves the transformation of sediment found at the bottom of the sea floor into energy to run sensors. The process uses microbial fuel cells to make a mud battery. It can provide the potential to have a power source that does not have to be replenished, Russell said.
The way it works is by having an anode, the negative portion of the battery, buried in sediment and electrically connected via an inexpensive carbon cloth, to a cathode, the positive part of the battery that is in the overlying water column, said Dr Y Mariah Arias-Thode, a scientist at SSC Pacific.
"Bacteria will donate their electrons to the anode and then the electrons are carried up to the cathode via some form of circuitry and an oxygen-reducing reaction occurs and that is how you get the energy," Arias-Thode said.
Best of all, it always works, she said.
Dr Arias-Thode, a scientist at SSC Pacific, holds up a piece of carbon cloth used to obtain electrical power from sea floor sediment. (IHS Markit/Geoff Fein)
SSC Pacific is planning to conduct a demonstration for the US Southern Command using the microbial fuel cell to power a PH sensor for drug interdiction. PH sensors do not require much power. SSC Pacific would place sensors in a river environment to detect acids used by illicit drug manufactures that are dumped into the water.
SSC Pacific is also planning to do a demonstration of a larger-scale microbial fuel cell in the Mediterranean Sea as part of its Coalition Warfare Program with the Italian Ministry of Defence.
A microbial fuel cell generates about 0.4 volts of power, Arias-Thode noted. "It took us a year to do the electronics to step up the voltage from 0.4 to 12 volts; and none of the [equipment] is COTS."
Last year during the 'Trident Warrior 2016' exercise off Hawaii, SSC Pacific attached a magnetometer to one of the microbial fuel cells. The sensor was able to track ships sailing out of Pearl Harbor.
The 'Holy Grail' would be if the microbial fuel cell could trickle charge a UUV in the future, Russell noted.
"We don't know if we would ever get that much power out. We are doing research there to explore what the limits are, what kind of microbes exist. Certain microbes are more efficient at generating power and they don't all live in the same area around the globe, and in the undersea environment, the deeper you get it tends to be cooler [so microbes would not generate as much power]," Russell said. "Understanding what the scope is, where it could be used, whether we could transport microbes, and what impact that might have – it certainly is an interesting research area that you wouldn’t normally think of for a C4ISR lab, but it is important because our products have to [operate] in various places."
A spin off is that some of these microbial fuel cells clean up the environment, so SSC Pacific is looking at them to possibly purify water for the Marine Corps, Russell added.
SSC Pacific is leading the testing of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and ONR’s Sea Hunter USV, formerly known as the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV).
Sea Hunter is a 132 ft (40.23 m)-long trimaran, just under 50 ft (15.24 m) across the beam. It was built by Leidos to have a wide beam to give the vessel stability and speed, up to 27 kt in every Sea State it has so far operated in. Sea Hunter has a 20,000 lb (9,071.84 kg) payload.