Anduril Industries, Oceaneering International and Kongsberg Discovery have been awarded contracts to prototype large undersea drones for the U.S. military, the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit announced Thursday.
The move comes as the Navy is trying to move toward what it calls a “hybrid fleet” of crewed and uncrewed systems, including a variety of unmanned underwater vessels and unmanned surface vessels. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti sees robotic systems and other emerging technologies as a key piece to her vision of the future force, that will help “put more players on the field.”
Maritime drones are seen as a cost-effective means of boosting the Navy’s capacity and capabilities while reducing risks to sailors by keeping them out of harm’s way, at a time when service officials view China as their main competitor and are preparing for a potential conflict in the Pacific region.
“Undersea warfare is critical to success in the Pacific and other contested environments, providing needed autonomous underwater sensing and payload delivery in dispersed, long-range, deep and contested environments is key. Crewed submarines are high-value, high-resource capital platforms necessary for crucial combat missions. In particular, the U.S. military requires a fleet of Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (LDUUVs) with diverse capabilities,” according to a Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) release issued Thursday announcing the awards.
The Navy’s program office for advanced undersea systems —PMS 394 —which falls under Naval Sea Systems Command, is teaming with DIU on the effort.
The Defense Innovation Unit, which is headquartered in Silicon Valley, works to connect the Pentagon with nontraditional contractors and commercial technologies that have military applications. It also aims to move faster than traditional Defense Department acquisition processes, via what it calls a commercial solutions opening, to get companies on contract quickly and move forward with prototyping.
Live demonstrations of the LDUUV technology are slated for March 2024, per the release.
“NAVSEA, in partnership with the DIU, has selected the best-in-breed from industry to rapidly advance new undersea capabilities in the Subsea and Seabed Warfare domain,” Capt. Grady Hill, program manager for PMS 394, said in a statement. “We are accelerating our development plans by utilizing rapid contracting authorities to speed capability to the Fleet.”
The picks were made following what DIU called “a rigorous evaluation process.”
The project isn’t the only maritime drone initiative that DIU is awarding contracts for to support the Navy. Just last week, it issued a solicitation for autonomous unmanned surface vessels that can operate in packs to monitor and intercept adversary ships. The aim is to build 10 or more robo-boats per month.
Separately, the Navy recently took delivery of its first Orca unmanned submarine. The extra-large UUV is intended to be a high-endurance undersea drone with a modular payload bay that can travel long distances autonomously and lay mines or perform other missions.