Even as new platforms reach the fleet, the Navy
looks to expand the reach of unmanned systems
By DANIEL P. TAYLOR, Special Correspondent
When the word “unman- ned” is uttered, most peo- ple probably think of
something along the lines of the Global Hawk flying high in the sky. But
at the Office of Naval Research today,
it can mean anything from a tiny
drone darting through the trees to
ground vehicles operating in groups,
complete with their own hierarchy.
Marc Steinberg, who manages the
science and autonomy program at
the Office of Naval Research (ONR),
said the agency is charting a course
for unmanned systems in the many
and unique roles that they fill.
ONR has several major areas of research when it
comes to unmanned systems, including autonomy, moving quickly through a complex environment, intelligence, interaction with humans and scalable operations
involving a large number of systems.
“We’re definitely trying to reduce the amount of
people involved in operations,” Steinberg said, “but it’s
not just getting people out of the loop. It’s also think-
ing about some of the ways people are going to be
working with autonomous systems.”
Humans will need to be involved in the operations
of unmanned systems to some degree. The question is
how can the Navy reduce the number of personnel
without negatively impacting operations?
“You want systems that are trustworthy, that will act
in appropriate ways, that won’t interfere with what
they’re doing,” Steinberg said.
In order to accomplish these ends, ONR is involved in
multidisciplinary scientific work, including control theory, mathematics, neuroscience and biology. For example, if the Navy wants a system that is able to fly at high
speeds through forests, traditional robotics rely on building a detailed three-dimensional environment and plot a
path through that — not fast enough for a small system
Wanted: ‘Trustworthy’ Systems
Navy researchers are working to develop unmanned systems that
further reduce human involvement without impacting operations.
■ The Office of Naval Research is involved in multidisciplinary scientific work, including control theory, mathematics, neuroscience
and biology as they pertain to the behavior of unmanned systems.
■ “Biological inspiration” includes considering multivehicle collaborations with some sort of organizational structure, or hierarchy.
■ The Navy wants to expand the capacity and capability of its
unmanned fleet to free manned platforms for more complex tasks.
that does not have very good sensors and has to pick up
on cues from the environment, Steinberg said.
Also, ONR is looking at “biological inspiration” in
other areas, he said, including multivehicle collaborations
with some sort of organizational structure or hierarchy.
“We’ve looked at some neuroscience-inspired
approaches, looking at how mammals are able to do
spatial understanding,” he said. “This is very immature
work, but there is some speculation you could see
improvement in simultaneous mapping.”
Ultimately, the Navy would like unmanned systems
that are able to move through realistic environments
with minimal input from a human operator. Today,
unmanned systems can do so, but they have to move
through such an environment relatively slowly, Steinberg
said. As far as multivehicle collaboration, the service also
is able to conduct such an operation to an extent, but it’s
“still very difficult to design systems” that have particular
capabilities the Navy would like them to have.
“A lot of advancements are needed,” he added.
Today, the Navy sees unmanned systems as a tool to
“augment manned capabilities with limited-capacity
unmanned systems,” said Joe Gradisher, a Navy
spokesman. “The Navy plans to expand its fleet of