Why Unmanned Vessels Are at the Top of the Navy’s Agenda

Why Unmanned Vessels Are at the Top of the Navy’s Agenda

Autonomous and unmanned vehicles offer extreme endurance for the United States’ global naval presence.


Cognizant of the need for U.S. Navy’s need for unmanned vessels capable of long, high-endurance missions, two American shipbuilders, Austal USA and Saildrone, Inc., are teaming up.

A press release announcing the two shipbuilders’ decision to join forces explained that the “new partnership combines Saildrone’s uncrewed surface vehicle technology with Austal USA’s advanced manufacturing capabilities.”


It added that “the partnership provides the U.S. Navy and other government customers a cutting-edge solution for maritime domain awareness, hydrographic survey, and other missions requiring persistent wide area coverage.”

The company’s press release explains that their Saildrone Surveyor is sixty-five feet long and is “designed specifically for deep ocean mapping and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) applications, both above and below the surface.”

It continues: "as with all Saildrone vehicles, the Surveyor is autonomous and uncrewed, offering extreme endurance, reliability and cost effective operations. With its industry-leading expertise in aluminum shipbuilding, Austal USA is uniquely equipped to fabricate the Surveyor’s aluminum hulls and ensure rapid delivery to the Fleet.”

As the unmanned vessels are powered by wind and solar, they are particularly well suited for high endurance voyages, a critically important task at sea. Specifically, the vessels could provide a persistent presence virtually anywhere at sea, lying in wait to observe surface ships or to listen for and track enemy submarines.

Though the United States has a network of underwater hydrophones that can listen for surface ships as well as submarines, these tools are static and immovable, unable to move to other locations. Having what would essentially be a mobile hydrophone—and one that can perform additional surveillance and reconnaissance activities—would be a massive boost for the U.S. Navy.

“We are extremely pleased to enter into this agreement with Saildrone. It is a great fit as both of us are leaders in our respective markets and we both strive to provide leading edge solutions to the U.S. Navy,” said Austal USA President Rusty Murdaugh in the company’s press release.

“With our lean manufacturing techniques and serial production capabilities, Austal USA will provide large scale fabrication of these vehicles and with our partner Saildrone rapidly get the capability to the Fleet,” he continued.

Austal will begin manufacturing the first Saildrone Surveyor vehicles for the U.S. Navy in October 2022.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.

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