Naval Drones

With all the talk about airborne drones like the Predator, it’s easy to forget that drones can be in the water as well. Meet the Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV):

The boat—painted in Navy gray and with a striking resemblance to a PT boat—is 39 feet long and can reach a top speed of 28 knots. Using a modified version of the unmanned Shadow surveillance aircraft technology that logged 700,000 hours of duty in the Middle East, the boat can be controlled remotely from 10 to 12 miles away from a command station on land, at sea or in the air, Haslett said.

Farther out, it can be switched to a satellite control system, which Textron said could expand its range to 1,200 miles. The boat could be launched from virtually any large Navy vessel.


Using diesel fuel, the boat could operate for up to 72 hours without refueling, depending upon its traveling speed and the weight of equipment being carried, said Stanley DeGeus, senior business development director for AAI’s advanced systems. The fuel supply could be extended for up to a week on slow-moving reconnaissance missions, he said.

Posted on May 7, 2012 at 6:52 AM30 Comments


Clive Robinson May 7, 2012 7:07 AM

Hmm a nice expensive unmaned boat full of high tech equipment worth a kings ransom of what possible interest could that be?

Esspecialy as it’s oh so slowly moving compared to a helicopter or other boarding platform…

The Iranians got lucky with an aerial drone, I don’t think they will need any such luck with this one…

phred14 May 7, 2012 7:13 AM

For having “been designed from the ground up not to have a crew”, it sure looks like the back half of the boat is an open cockpit. If I were deploying something like this, and especially taking Clive’s concern into account, I’d want to top of the boat to be as inaccessible as possible, along with an auto-scuttle capability. (Anything on the outside that could be cabled or gripped should be breakable and/or weak, to guarantee that auto-scuttle worked.)

bruce May 7, 2012 7:21 AM

Autonomous underwater vehicles (UAVs) have been used by the oil business for seabed surveys for years. They would be a lot less obvious.

Dave Walker May 7, 2012 7:26 AM

Not surprising.

I assume there are also plans (if not implementations) for “Common Unmanned Subsurface Vessels” – although the issues of radio communication through water would mean these would have to have a greater degree of autonomy than their surface and airborne counterparts.

Also – probably more of academic interest than practical application, owing to power issues – improvements in seafloor mapping would enable the development of “cruise torpedoes”.

Steve May 7, 2012 8:03 AM

What you want to bet, its got bluetooth, or wireless running and you can just get close to it and you have yourself a new 10 million toy to play with. I have no doubt our military designers put in so much super gear, and a 100 dollar wireless system with wep encryption at best. ;.)

As a navy vet I still marvel at all the money spend on crap like this. Still I guess the Scifi future of a all robot (empire) army/navy/air force is not far off now, we already live in the “1984” vision of the world. So sad…..

I cannot wait until the north Koreans capture one….

TS May 7, 2012 8:07 AM


“it sure looks like the back half of the boat is an open cockpit.”

Looks to me like there’s the tail of a UAV sitting in the back. Could be why the back opens, so it can launch a small drone.

paul May 7, 2012 8:27 AM

Of course it’s got an apparently open cockpit (and also an apparently open transom, for launching and recovering something or other). That way you lure the team of evildoers aboard and then bring them back to your base at 30 knots.

And who needs auto-scuttling, at least in the conventional sense? A craft that size can carry enough explosive to make a really big bang, and the survivors would hardly be in a position to complain. (If it appeared off the US coast, I’d expect that after failing to answer hails it would quickly be sunk from a safe distance.)

askme233 May 7, 2012 9:22 AM

Surprised it looks so like a traditional boat. I think if one were designing something that need to be able to travel long distances on stored fuel and manage weather itself, you would end up with a mutihull or some other more efficient model. It just looks like they structured it to carry a lot of equipment. The same reason the Shuttle became ground launch instead of air launched (too bad).

I would love to see a much lighter version with a sail that could roam the seas indefinately (but still with power when needed) Be a great cheap way to build a fleet of intelligence gathering devices to track naval traffic and even support scientific research.

Dave Walker May 7, 2012 9:50 AM

@askme233 That “lighter version” is being done; check out Liquid Robotics.

The intended purpose of the Liquid Robotics units is scientific research, however it would probably be straightforward to fit them with hydrophones and other surveillance kit…

NobodySpecial May 7, 2012 10:32 AM

Greenland has announced it will launch a fleet of unmanned unsinkable autonomous vessels this summer. Equipped with an anti-ship capability proven in over 100years of trials. Their advanced stealth capability renders them 6/7 invisible to surface vessels.

The craft are fully recyclable and will auto destruct at the end of the life when they reach the tropics – although environmental campaigners have claimed they contain dangerous amounts of the chemical dihydrogen-monoxodide

Captain Obvious May 7, 2012 10:40 AM

And these are the ones they don’t mind if you see…

How many did they have to build to call it ‘Common’? How many unmanned vehicles are required to properly surveil us?

phred14 May 7, 2012 10:51 AM


Last I heard, the Japanese have been exercising a recycling plan for the debris like that from the “Greenland Fleet”, though they have been doing more of it against the “Alaska Fleet”.

Think of it, keeping your drink cool’n’frosty helps keep the world’s oceans safe for navigation.

Petréa Mitchell May 7, 2012 11:37 AM

Nice to see they’ve learned a little from the experience of domestic UAVs:

Additional technology under development would allow the CUSV to “detect a sailboat with a family on it” and pass safely – without controller intervention, DeGeus said.

Most (all?) UAVs in use today, even in non-restricted domestic airspace, not only don’t have the ability to avoid other aircraft on their own, they don’t even have sufficient sensors to make their controllers aware of air traffic in the immediate area.

Clive Robinson May 7, 2012 12:39 PM

@ NobodySpecial,

The craft are fully recyclable and will auto destruct at the end of the life when they reach the tropics – although environmental campaigners have claimed they contain dangerous amounts of the chemica dihydrogen-monoxodide

This was thought of during WWII however it was found that moncrystaline dihydrogen-monoxide was two brittle and would shatter easily under ordinary gun fire.

Which is very much the same for concreate, but as we know from experiance that concrete like the bones in our body (made of chalk) become imensly stronger when small amounts of “fiber” are added.

So it proved with frozen water a small amount of wood pulp or shreaded waste paper (~14% bw) when added materialy altered the properties of the pure form, making it far stronger and considerably slow melting (I’ve made it accidently with straw when putting out animal feed in winter and can confirm impiricaly some of it’s properties).

Although originaly sugested by a prewar scientist with an interest in plastics the name it was given “Pykrete” was after the man that proposed it’s use during WWII,

Apparently Mythbusters made a small boat out of their own “super-piecrete” however they made a fatal mistake in their design (not including the refrigiation systems) and thus they dubed it incorrectly “Plausable-but busted”.

MarkH May 7, 2012 12:46 PM

@Capt. Obvious:

In the mysterious language of Pentagonese, the word “Common” means, “intended for use with more than one platform.”

For example, in the 80s DOD developed a gadget for internal (bomb bay) carriage of ordnance called the “Common Strategic Rotary Launcher,” intended to be used on more than one type of bomber plane (I think the idea was that it would end up in the B-1, B-2, and the old B-52).

Perhaps the CUSV will serve for both naval patrol, and blue-water fishing excursions (with robotic fishermen?)

Brad Templeton May 7, 2012 1:12 PM

Actually the liquid robotics boats do come with hyrdrophones. The first goal of the founder was to listen to whales. However, with effectively infinite range (though at just 2 knots) and not much capacity for weapons, but plenty for sensing, and full autonomy rather than remote operation mode, these are a different level of beast.

Clive Robinson May 7, 2012 1:14 PM

@ askme233,

Surprised it looks so like a traditional boat. I think if one were designing something that need to be able to travel long distances on stored fuel and manage weather itself, you would end up with a mutihull or some other more efficient model.

Two of the primary requirments after seaworthyness are platform stability and self right ability.

These two are conflicting requirments in that a bihull such as a cat can be made very stable but won’t self right. A monohull can however be made reasonably stable and also self righting as the design of RNLI boats has shown.

There are other problems with multi-hulls including a larger draft and less manoeuvrable having a far larger turning circle. They also tend to “cut through” rather than “ride over” waves which is problematic for an observation platform.

Then there is the question of “stealth” a multihull boat is going to be a lot harder to make stealthy than a low riding monohull. Not just to EM radiation (radar etc) but also acoustic radiation (Sonar etc).

The price you pay with monohulls is speed, because they ride over not cut through waves and they create their own bow wave there is a limit to how fast the hull can go whilst fully wetted directly proportional to the hull length. To get the hull above this speed then the hull has to “lift” out of the water and the boat goes onto a “plane” this requires a considerable energy input to achieve or clever ballast changing techniques (in sail boats you get all the ballast up front and when the bows start to sing you get all the ballast aft as qquickly as possible and if you are lucky the singing terns to a scream).

Bruce Clement May 7, 2012 4:34 PM

@Clive Robinson

More commonly “Pykrete” after the inventor Geoffrey Pyke.

When I was 11 or 12 I read a biography (more like a hagiography) of him including the story of how he promoted it.

Even when looked at in a more rational light he was still a very interesting man. One of those half mad geniuses that the British empire threw up just often enough to let them overcome the gross incompetence of their ruling class and muddle through for a couple of hundred years.

bruce May 7, 2012 5:14 PM

I read somewhere, probably in a book by Churchill, of a demonstration of Pykcrete to the top brass. A slab of it was attacked with a hammer or axe. Someone (Churchill?) suggested firing a gun at it. One of the Army brass did so. The pistol shot rebounded, fortunately without hitting anyone.

It might have cost us our leader.

Jon May 7, 2012 5:33 PM

@ Clive Robinson

I have to disagree with you on ‘stealth’ there. The definitive ‘stealth ship’, Lockheed’s ‘Sea Shadow’, was a catamaran.

And in sailing ships, cats have much shallower draft, because they don’t have to have a deep keel.

I’m not sure how to build a self-righting catamaran, but I imagine it could be done. I have a few ideas…


NobodySpecial May 7, 2012 5:49 PM

Strictly speaking Sea Shadow was a swath hull. It had two underwater flotation+drive sections and the craft sat on stilts above them.
In order to keep the planar surfaces necessary for stealth the struts were filled in.

Interestingly if you read Ben Rich’s book about the skunk works, the reasons that it failed to attract Navy approval at the time was – it didn’t have a paint locker (!) and it only required a crew of 4. No Navy captain was going to command a mere 3 men.

bruce May 8, 2012 7:01 AM

I read that book, thought they should have copied Turbinia’s stunt with Sea Shadow.

Clive Robinson May 8, 2012 8:59 AM

@ Jon

And in sailing ships, cats have much shallower draft, because they don’t have to have a deep keel

Err first off I was not talking about sailpowered hulls, secondly “deep keels” are historicaly a very modern idea and did not exist on the majority of working sailing ships (and still doesn’t today).

The “deep keel” has a couple of benifits for racing/pleasure yachts but several disadvantages.

In general the “deep keel” is a passive system designed to support the modern sail rig and provide improved windward performance. It does this by providing a leaver on which a high density weight is added to provide contra rotation arround the assumed pivot point thus allowing a much larger sail area on much taller masts. The same lever can be extended into a blade which helps provide a counter vector to that caused by the wind thus improving the windward performanc from a braod reach to close hauled.

The bigest problems are a very much increased wetted area which significantly reduces efficiency, and the significant change in main hull structure to handle the changed and increased stresses.

It is also not a lot of use to most cargo carrying vessels because they don’t want either the deep draft or structural supports that reduce cargo carrying capacity.

From the pleasure boat perspective a deep keel iss also a nuisance, due to mooring up. Unless it’s a deep water harbor the boat needs to either more up sufficiently far from shore to prevent the keel touching bottom or take precautions to ensure the boat will either not topple or topple in the desired safe direction (usully towards shore).

Frequently the solution in cruising craft is a duel keel with sufficient strength to take the full weight of the boat etc.

Even on racing yachts the traditional passive deep keel is going out of popularity, the keel weight to stop wind rotation has been replaced with winglets that use hydrodynamics to provide contra rotational forces and in some cases where race rules alow “active ballast”. One such rule is in the Whitbread race where there is a rule about not having excessive quantities of bear on board. The reason was that in earlier races the barrels and crates were used as “active ballast” over and above having the crew ssit on the windward side.Basicaly the “Winch Gorillas” would on making a change of sailing point go below and move the barrels and crates to the windward side to provide a little extra “trim adjustment” allowing for a little extra sail hight and thus a considerable advantage.

With regards stealth one of the problems as you probably know is “tri-corner” and “right angle” reflectors vastly increasing the returned signal gain. The traditional design of multihulls ends up with a “trough” under the boat between the two hulls. This trough consisting of the inside walls of the hulls and the sea is a fairly high gain reflector at some frequencies and even at others still provides quite a high gain to airbourn radar. The solution is to “over deck” the hulls but this has to be done with considerable care and introduces another problem.

A secondary issue with multi hull vessels is they cut through rather than ride the waves, this has a consiquence in that the deck hight consiquently has to be very much higher esspecialy if over decked, thus vastly increasing the vessels detectability horizon.

Further certain kinds of stealth are kind of going out of fashion because they have a high cost to efficiency and in the case of vehicle surfaces with non 90degree and non curved surface reflectors these can be picked up with “offset radar” where there is a considerable distance between the pulse emmiter and echo receivers.

The reason for the oddity of offset radar is not stealth it’s self but “anti-radar missile technology”. In essence the missile flys down the pulse emmiter beam and destroyes it (or works out it’s location and flys down to the GPS coordinates).

However the technology behind the pulse emmiter is generaly very low cost compared to that of the nearly passive receiver technology. Thus having a number of emitters that can be turned on when others have been taken out makes the anti radar misssiles a very expensive option for an attacker (the new GPS guided artillery shells are redressing this though but still require the emitter location to be known which with a shell flight time of over tthirty seconds alows for a fairly easy defence).

For instance there is only a limited number of these missiles that can be carried and the firing of them marks the aircraft out for optical and IR passive anti aircraft defences. The fact that the missile has been fired is a very large indicator that another attack is imminent thus bringing up a second emmiter a short while later will enable these aircraft to be detected and located for other defence systems.

Further the anti-radar missile needs either a static emmiter or a continuous emmiter for it to work. Thus if the emmiters are of the “single pulse” type on highly manoeuvrable or fast moving platforms the anti_radar missile is effectivly mitigated as is the GPS guided artillery “smart shells”.

Sean May 8, 2012 9:56 AM

Send one of those into Somali waters. They’ll quickly find a highest bidder after capture.

Peter Maxwell May 8, 2012 9:42 PM

Fairly sure I’d read an article about drug smugglers using under water drones to ferry their goods about, and rather successfully at that. Presumably the main difference between the drug cartels and the US military is going to be pay-load, although I can’t help thinking that bombing your enemy with a load of pre-rolled “joints” might see a quicker end to conflicts: if the opposition army and population are all stoned, they would be far more amenable to diplomacy.

DanT May 9, 2012 7:09 AM

As a former US Navy officer who studied naval strategy, I can tell you this is a great idea. I am just not a fan of the execution in this instance.

The overwhelming advantage in naval combat is knowing where the enemy is before they know where you are. Drones sitting on my horizon (10 miles) means I can see further than the enemy – and that applies to radar too. I then have the advantage to choose when and how to engage or withdraw.

These drones look like naval vessels, clearly a target and an indicator of monitoring. I would instead convert standard sports fishing boats into drones with remote control – they would blend in anywhere so wouldn’t draw attention to themselves.

If the enemy destroys or captures them, you learn a lot right there (they can spot your drones, what they used to destroy them is deployed to the area, and they don’t want something to be seen) and that’s the point – these are surveillance craft after all.

Noni Mausa May 9, 2012 7:13 AM

I’ve wondered for years about the possibility of making wind-powered drone ships (with an engine for arrival and departure maneuvers) for cheap shipping of resources and unbreakable goods. Completely sealed, it could have access to weather information, telling it when the wind was blowing the right way, and it could be fitted out to dive if a metallic object like a ship came near it. It would be like an economic message in a bottle.

Of course, the drone itself might be far more expensive than an ordinary ship with live humans on it. But humans are so passe …

Kevin M. May 9, 2012 9:02 AM

The philosophical problem with war drone development and mass production:
The number of conflicts around the world could increase because of the ease (video game fun) for those who direct military attacksThey will not have to endanger the lives of their citizens to do so and need no democratic approval for this covert attack. Does a country gain trust throughout the world if they send stealth killing robots into countries without the declaration of war? Doesn’t the lack of trust increase chances for more war? After we develop the computer that is self-aware, should we unleash those killing robots too? Why not?
What is this military machine really about? Economic recovery or revenge? I say “security” has little to do with it.

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