Navy underwater drone (Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Charles Oki)

Navy turns to unmanned systems to map the ocean

As the Navy increases its use of unmanned systems to map the ocean floor and collect data on temperature and salinity, it needs the raw data to come in  automatically so it can create a “user-defined operating picture.”

During a recent operational demonstration of its unmanned systems in the Gulf of Mexico, the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command used Esri’s ArcGIS Enterprise to provide a backend infrastructure and user interface that lets users tailor how the data will be managed, and it set up automated processing, visual displays and analytics.

“It allows us to quickly quality control, look at the data, see if there are any spurious errors in the data, and it just gives us a great way to visualize the information,” said William Burnett, deputy commander and technical director to the commander for the meteorology command's Task Group 80.7. “Instead of just looking at 1s and 0s that might be on a map, now we can look at a full data display through time and be able to really pick out the errors, turn the data around and get it into databases that we can get to the Navy so they are able to operate in the ocean safely and effectively.”

What’s more, the software enables the command to carry out the analysis in near real time. Users can analyze data on temperature, humidity, wind speed and topography, for example.

Traditional “post-mission processing, download-the-dataset thing, that’s not operationally significant information,” said Curt Hammill, Esri's Navy account executive. “It’s useful for climatology, for trends, but it’s not operationally relevant. That’s the key point there. It has to be collected and exploited in short time frames, near-real time frames, for it to be able to be exploited.”

The operational demonstration aimed to show officials what was possible if they combined the data from their usually separate unmanned systems. For instance, the participants speculated how long it would take to clear and map ports after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina using unmanned systems versus survey ships and manned boats. “We were able to quantify how fast we’d be able to do it with unmanned systems and how much more information we’d be able to get,” Burnett said. Traditional tools would have taken five days to map and clear the area; unmanned systems could do it in just one day.

Also, the use of unmanned underwater systems can double and even triple the amount of data-collecting devices the Navy can put in the water, and they do it faster and at a higher resolution than standard survey ships, he said. The result is an ability to turn data around faster and to present it in new ways.

Before, users might just use a regular ocean chart, but now  we can "display the data in a way that you feel you’re at the bottom of the ocean or in a mountain valley, and you don’t have to use your imagination," Burnett said. "You can actually see the topography.”

Two of the unmanned systems the Navy has deployed are autonomous ocean gliders and autonomous underwater vehicles. About 40 gliders are deployed worldwide, Burnett said, and they can survey an operational area (roughly 100 square nautical miles) in about a day. About 10 undersea vehicles are in operation, mapping  the bottom of the ocean. It takes 90 days to complete a typical survey of that size, he added.

Before deploying the unmanned vehicles, data collection was done by six survey ships, which would drop a profiler into the water, retrieve it, gather the data and move on to the next spot. “At best, in one day we would get about four vertical profiles of temperature and salinity,” Burnett said. “The amount of data that we’re able to collect on just autonomous ocean gliders compared to what we’re able to do on survey ships is just enormous.”

The Navy uses an Iridium communications system to send data from the unmanned devices back to the Glider Operations Center at the Naval Oceanographic Office at Stennis Space Center. Officials watch and direct the gliders as they collect data round the clock.

For the Navy, use of unmanned systems is likely to increase. Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, commander of the meteorology command, set an unmanned system strategy in 2015 with the goals of expanding their use, enabling the Fleet and Joint Forces to use them and accelerating their development.

“Unmanned systems are the platform of the future,” former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in 2015. He set the goal of making the service half unmanned in 20 years, Burnett said, but “we want to help the Navy get into unmanned systems faster than just 20 years.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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