SINGAPORE: The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) could deploy four unmanned surface vessels (USV) for maritime security by the end of this year, depending on the progress of final sea trials.
Once operational, the USVs will conduct round-the-clock patrols, investigate, as well as intercept suspicious vessels in Singapore waters. They are equipped with long-range loudhailers, strobe and search lights, as well as a 12.7mm gun.
They also come with advanced navigation and anti-collision systems to avoid obstacles and move fully autonomously in the congested waters of the Singapore Strait. The USV is not limited by a communications range, meaning it can technically be operated from anywhere.
The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said in a factsheet on Monday (Mar 1) that two crew members will operate a USV from shore, with a “user-centric” mission control system to quickly plan and execute patrol profiles, track vessels of interest and warn or query vessels.
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This comes as the RSN looks to tackle evolving threats like maritime terrorism and piracy, and operate with leaner manpower amid a shrinking pool of national servicemen. Unmanned vessels also allow the potentially dangerous missions at sea to be conducted more safely.
MINDEF first announced the new USVs in 2018, stating then that they would allow larger, manned warships like the littoral mission vessels (LMV) to be deployed more strategically for other missions and at further ranges from Singapore.
The RSN already operates several unmanned vessels, including a similarly designed USV for clearing mines and a smaller USV for maritime surveillance and to protect larger warships. The latter USV is not fully autonomous as it is remotely controlled.
The RSN has acquired four of the new USVs for sea trials that are expected to be completed by the end of this year, said USV Squadron commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Desmond Ng in a media showcase at Changi Naval Base on Feb 24.
These unmanned trials will involve integrating systems and testing operational concepts, like how the USVs will investigate or chase suspicious vessels. If things go to plan, they could be deployed in actual operations by the end of the year or early next year, LTC Ng said.
As for whether the RSN could get more USVs in the future, LTC Ng did not want to comment, saying: “We are still going through the operationalisation process.”
HOW WILL THE USVs BE USED?
The USVs are expected to work alongside manned vessels to “enhance the RSN’s ability to monitor and respond to situations at sea”, MINDEF said. They could also be deployed with the RSN’s newly inaugurated maritime security and response vessels.
LTC Ng said there will always be a USV on patrol rotation, given that each vessel can stay out at sea for up to 36 hours. “I will always have a USV on the strait, as compared to an LMV which may not always be there 24/7,” he said.
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When it comes to operations, LTC Ng said USVs can act as first responders in security incidents at sea – like when a ship is hijacked by robbers – and reduce the number of manned ships required to go on scene.
Crew members operating the USV will conduct surveillance and detection visually, using electro-optical cameras on board the vessel.
One crew member will focus on mission planning, like plotting patrol paths, while the other will control the USV’s payloads, such as its cameras and gun. Moving the USV is as easy as clicking on a screen.
MINDEF said future USV teams, consisting of operators and maintenance crew, will mainly comprise full-time and operationally ready national servicemen, with a “small complement” of regulars. RSN’s unmanned systems are usually operated by regulars.
USV personnel will be trained similarly to their counterparts on manned ships and learn basic seamanship, but without certain manned aspects like firefighting and replenishment operations, LTC Ng said.
This means it will take 20 per cent less time to train a full-time national serviceman (NSF) USV operator, compared to an NSF working on a manned ship.
“For the USV craft operation ... it is relatively smaller and easier to control,” he added. “The main thing is to let them understand how the algorithm (for autonomous operations) is designed and how it will react in different scenarios. So if there’s any anomaly, they can detect it early.”
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This algorithm, which is used in the USV’s collision detection and collision avoidance (CDCA) system, is perhaps what makes the vessel rather special.
The CDCA system, developed over a decade by the Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA) and DSO National Laboratories, enables the vessel to safely navigate the busy Singapore Strait, where 1,000 ships sail through every day.
The system uses on-board cameras and radars to ensure that the USV automatically detects and avoids obstacles at sea, like buoys, beacons and other ships. The USV will then correct its path to resume its planned route.
The system is also programmed to obey “traffic laws” at sea, like which direction to turn when avoiding obstacles, and integrates maritime navigation tools like charts, automatic identification systems and a differential global positioning system.
Given how crucial and complex the system is, DSTA and DSO made sure it could work.
Researchers spent nine months running millions of kilometres of lab simulations using actual Singapore marine traffic data to ensure that the USV can go collision-free, and another nine months testing it out at sea with safety crew on board.
DSO principal defence researcher Bay Zi Jing said USV algorithms are usually tested in less congested waters and have not been validated in Singapore waters.
“The uniqueness is we actually adjusted the algorithm until it can work in the Singapore Strait,” he said. “So this is something that we can’t just pluck off the shelf.”
As with anything that is controlled remotely, the USV could be susceptible to cyber threats, and a DSTA official said “extra effort” was put in to beef up its cybersecurity.
“We equip the USV with advanced cybersecurity protection measures such as encryption and other stuff we cannot share, configured based on our operational mission,” DSTA senior engineer Tan Shu Jun said.