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Unmanned Watercraft Hits High Seas
October 31, 2013   
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A team of researchers from the Naval Academy in Gdynia, northern Poland, has developed an unmanned vessel that can be used to protect ports from attack, carry out rescue missions at sea and detect environmental hazards.

The watercraft, known as an Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV)—and officially referred to as a “multi-variant unmanned floating platform for backing up the maritime activities of state services”—can be deployed to monitor port areas, detect contaminants, collect meteorological and hydrographic data, and help in rescue and life-saving operations at sea. The Naval Academy researchers were aided in the project by military and civilian professionals responsible for safe navigation, coast-guard duties and environmental protection.

Today increasingly smaller vessels are used to protect the seas and coastal waters. Most of these vessels are unmanned vehicles that support the work of large ships, especially if the job they need to perform involves an area where large ships cannot be deployed.

“Such watercraft should be built in Poland rather than bought abroad because of the lower production, operation, maintenance and training costs as well as the possibility of adapting them to changing conditions,” says Prof. Zygmunt Kitowski from the Naval Academy, the project manager.

The USV developed by his team has great potential, according to Kitowski. It can be used on lakes and at seaports as well as on the open sea.

The original version of the watercraft was built in 2011, using funds from the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR). Initially, the USV was controlled by a human operator via radio from a command post, but in December 2012 the researchers turned it into an autonomous unit capable of performing tasks on its own.

The USV’s hull is 5.7 meters long, and the vessel’s loading capacity is about a ton. Depending on the speed, state of the sea and load, the vessel can operate for seven to 30 hours, traveling at a speed of 35 knots (around 70 kph).

“The first version of the watercraft was controlled via radio by an operator from a mobile command post. The second version was enhanced to include a system for mission planning and autonomous control without the involvement of a human operator,” says Kitowski.

The vehicle can be adapted to the needs of different users through the addition of specific modules. For military applications, the watercraft can be expanded by installing modules such as a remote-controlled machine gun, a depth charge launcher, an unmanned underwater vehicle, and a searchlight. Equipped with special sensors, the USV is capable of measuring the degree of radioactive, chemical and biological contamination of the marine environment.

The invention could benefit the Polish Navy, especially during mine reconnaissance missions in shallow waters and in protecting sea bases, ports and rigs. It is also a great tool for border guards to help monitor and protect the coast, the researchers say. The USV can also be used by the police in counter-terrorism operations as well as by maritime authorities to conduct sea rescue missions, monitor navigation and detect environmental hazards at sea. Also, it can come in handy for authorities tasked with patrolling rivers, lakes and other bodies of water.

In all, about 40 people took part in designing the USV, representing institutions including the Naval Academy, the Gdańsk University of Technology, and the Polish-Japanese Institute of Information Technology. While working on the project, the researchers also teamed up with partners from industry—the Sportis company from Koleczkowo near Gdynia, a leading Polish producer of Rigid-Inflatable Boats (RIB), and the Sprint company from the northeastern city of Olsztyn. In addition, some of the construction work was outsourced to external companies.

“The higher education institutions participating in the project did not have the necessary technical facilities, so the job of the Sportis company was to adapt the hull of the RIB S 5700 boat and deal with the installation of all the systems,” says Kitowski. “To take full advantage of the USV’s potential, we tried to upgrade the design to include new solutions. These included the installation of a special command support system relying on artificial intelligence methods allowing the unmanned vehicle to make its own decisions.”

For example, if the craft loses contact with base, a special system will allow the USV to return to where it set off from. Target tracking cameras were also installed, in addition to a dual communications system for controlling the vessel and for carrying out tasks from a distance of dozens of miles.

On board the watercraft are infrared detectors and sensors that make it possible—when needed—to detect, measure and identify hazardous explosives, chemicals, biological materials and radiation. It is also possible to install systems for collecting samples or laying navigation signs.

In the front part of the vehicle, searchlights, a machine gun, grenade launchers and other equipment can be placed. Modules such as an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) or an autonomous, self-propelled mine-destroying vehicle can be mounted on the stern.

Another member of the project consortium, the Sprint company, which deals with computer science, ICT, telecommunications and new technology, undertook to test the USV in laboratory conditions and at sea. Sprint was also responsible for the transmission of information from sensors placed on the underwater remotely operated vehicle purchased as part of the project. Moreover, the company helped integrate the navigation, monitoring and communication systems. It also helped develop technology documentation and handled the standardization process and other paperwork.
Henryk Kamiński, CEO of the Sprint company, said, “As a company operating on the market for new technology and focused on innovation, we highly appreciate the opportunity to work with academic institutions, especially in carrying out joint R&D projects.”

The company says it hopes the USV will win over potential customers in Poland, particularly the Navy, Border Guard, especially its marine branch, as well as the police and the maritime authorities. The watercraft could also attract buyers from abroad, for whom it may be highly competitive in terms of price, according to Sprint executives.

So far, neither the watercraft nor its individual components are protected by patent. The decision to submit the design for patenting is up to individual members of the project consortium.

The USV generated a lot of interest at the 12th Balt-Military-Expo Baltic Military Fair in Gdańsk last year and at the 20th MSPO International Defense Industry Exhibition in the city of Kielce in September 2012. Companies from countries such as Bulgaria, Russia and Greece expressed an interest in buying the watercraft.

Olga Majewska
Adam Grzybowski contributed to this article.
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