The Jetsons TV sitcom popularized the concept of autonomous everything nearly 50 years ago – well ahead of its time.
Recent technological advances are finally transforming Autonomous Things (AuT) into reality – enabling unmanned vehicles, vessels, robots and other “things” to increase safety and convenience in ways even the Jetsons never envisioned.
Although autonomous cars capture most headlines, unmanned vessels and aerial vehicles show some of the most promise in reaching the adoption goal-line even faster.
For example, the U.S. Navy has dedicated about $600 million to research, develop and build a fleet of almost 500 unmanned and manned ships by 2045. These unmanned vessels (UVs) can be integrated with sensors, weapons, and sonars; and can be operated remotely, semi-autonomously, or fully autonomous.
The unmanned ships will no longer need onboard human operators, which allows for longer missions. Formerly taxing missions that pose a higher risk of injury, death or capture of sailors, can be mitigated by an autonomous ship. As the U.S. Navy wrote; “UVs are particularly suitable for so-called ‘three D’ missions, meaning missions that are dull, dirty or dangerous.”
L3Harris recently was selected to design an autonomous surface ship by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) No Manning Required Ship (NOMARS) program. L3Harris’ NOMARS design will demonstrate the reliability and feasibility of an unmanned ship performing lengthy missions – without direct human interaction. In addition to NOMARS, L3Harris is also part of another DARPA project known as the SeaTrain program.
The company will also design and construct the Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV) prototype, with the potential option to create and build an additional eight MUSVs.
The contract extends L3Harris’ leadership in unmanned maritime vehicles. The company is leading the effort toward naval autonomy and has already delivered over 125 ASVs and optionally manned vehicles to defense and commercial customers. The platform neutral products allow naval vessels to operate autonomously, safely reacting to the world around it or as a digital co-pilot.
The company also built the first commercially developed family of low-cost unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) known as the Iver, which can conduct ISR missions and reach depths of 300 meters for long duration exercises.
“We continue to accelerate our unmanned technology in order to enhance survivability and readiness for the U.S. Navy and its allies,” said Rosemary Chapdelaine, President, Maritime, L3Harris.
L3Harris’ autonomous expertise stretches into unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as well.
The company completed the second phase of an ongoing competition for a Naval Air Warfare Center Air Division (NAWCAD) AIRWorks award to develop the FVR-90 UAS capable of operating in confined areas without additional support systems. In addition to the FVR-90, other unmanned products include the UAS Coyote, Overmatch and products for the Marine Corps.
The demonstration is part of a multi-phased selection process to evaluate state-of-the-art technologies, inform future acquisition strategies and satisfy merit-based competition requirements for potential Other Transaction (OT) awards for prototyping. Awarded OTs have the potential to become part of a future program of record estimated to be worth up to $1 billion.
L3Harris’ FVR-90 uses patented Hybrid Quadrotor technology that allows it to take off in a confined area with a small crew and transition between horizontal and vertical flight quickly and accurately. The aircraft is different from existing ‘runway independent’ unmanned air systems, requiring no separate launcher or recovery device. It offers increased capability, portability, and smaller operational footprint for military and commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) applications.
For the aerial sector, unmanned aerial systems can be equipped with payloads to assist in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. These unmanned vehicles can also provide commercial support such as mapping for agriculture, GPS guidance and providing internet provisions in remote areas.
First responders recently began using FVR-90s to fly safely at high altitudes over California fires and beam real-time visual and heat imagery back to command centers. The imagery provides important situational awareness – enabling them to better spot fire trends and determine the best and safest way to deploy rescue workers on the ground.
“L3Harris’ FVR-90 offers unique technology not offered by other unmanned aerial systems,” said Dave Duggan, President, Precision Engagement Systems, L3Harris. “This unmanned system can operate in the austere weather environments and multiple domains. The FVR-90 offers a vertical takeoff and landing capability that we believe can give the Navy the needed control to accomplish its important missions.”
L3Harris is also part of a consortium testing the viability of beyond-line-of-site (BVLOS) UAS operations in North Dakota. The company is working with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site to build, implement and operate North Dakota’s statewide network for flying UAS beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
The companies will provide systems engineering and integration services for this “first-of-its-kind, aviation-grade” network. The state invested $28 million in funding to support the creation of this network that will enable BVLOS drone flights across the state. The network will benefit various industries, including agriculture, utilities and public safety.
L3Harris provides safety-critical, aviation-grade solutions that integrate UAS in the NAS. The solutions incorporate NAS-wide air traffic surveillance data feeds from the FAA, commercially available cooperative and non-cooperative surveillance sensors, software applications for UAS operations support, display systems and engineering services.
The technologies L3Harris pioneered for beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations will expand the role of UAS for North Dakota and will help improve air safety, increase efficiency, reduce the cost of commercial data acquisition, and support the growth of drone commerce.