What is it like to design a ship with no crew?
No living quarters, galleys or lavatories.
DARPA, the Pentagon’s research agency, wants to design a ship designed from scratch to be fully automated. The project, known as No Manning Required, Ship (NOMARS), aims to create a ship where every inch is available – or not wasted, depending on how you look at it – on human beings.
“The NOMARS program seeks to design a ship that can operate autonomously for long
durations at sea, enabling a clean-sheet ship design process that eliminates design
considerations associated with crew,” according to DARPA. “NOMARS focuses on exploring novel approaches to the design of the seaframe (the ship without mission systems) while accommodating representative payload size, weight, and power.”
DARPA envisions a design almost dystopian in its vision of a ship without laughter or shouting, the smells of cooking and the bustle of hundreds of sailors. There will be “no provision, allowance, or expectation for humans at sea. By removing the human element from all ship design considerations, NOMARS will demonstrate significant advantages, to include size, cost (procurement, operations, and sustainment), at sea reliability, survivability to sea-state, survivability to adversary actions (stealth considerations, resistance to tampering, etc.), and hydrodynamic efficiency (hull optimization without consideration for crew safety or comfort).”
NOMARS will proceed along two tracks. The first is straightforward enough: devise a method of evaluating a crewless ship and the maintenance systems needed to operate it. The second track is more interesting: “allow for agile development of relevant subsystem technologies, with a focus on self-adaptive health management for systems relevant to and of similar complexity as that associated with the hull, mechanical, and electrical systems of a seaframe.”
In other words, how do systems aboard a Navy ship – such as navigations, sensors and perhaps even weapons – fix themselves without a crew to help.
DARPA has scheduled a Proposer’s Day in January 2020 in which companies can ask questions about the project.
In theory, a ship without crew quarters should be able to pack more weapons, sensors and other systems in a given hull size than a manned vessel. This either means a crewless ship will pack more capabilities than an equivalent-sized manned counterpart, or more likely, a crewless ship will simply be smaller but equal in capabilities to conventional ships.
In 2016, this writer had a chance to step aboard DARPA’s Sea Hunter, an experimental yacht-sized robot ship designed to autonomously detect and track diesel submarines. Because stalking a quiet diesel sub can be a long and tedious process that can span days, the idea is a let a robot handle the drudgery while human forces close in to make the kill.
In some ways, Sea Hunter was familiar to anyone who has been aboard a U.S. Navy ship. There was the haze-gray paint, and the ladders connecting the decks. But Sea Hunter also seemed inhumanly narrow, an 11-foot-wide vessel that seemed like it had been compressed in a vise. Indeed, it was inhuman, because there were no crew quarters: there was something eerie about an engine room empty of anything but machinery, or a compartment described as the brains of the ships. It was just a rack of computer gear.
Image: Creative Commons.