February 29, 2016      

As with icebergs, much of the activity around naval robotics is occurring beneath the suface. Mergers, autonomous vessels, and international research are leading to a new generation of undersea drones.

General Dynamics Mission Systems has added Bluefin Robotics Corp. to its Marine and Strategic Systems business.

Quincy, Mass.-based Bluefin Robotics makes unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) for commercial and military use. Its offerings include autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) for counter-mine operations, surveillance and reconnaissance, and oceanography and rapid environmental assessment.

Bluefin Robotics was founded in 1997 by engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AUV Laboratory and was a subsidiary of Battelle Memorial Institute Inc. In 2011, the company received a subcontact from General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems for the Surface Mine Countermeasure UUV.

“Bluefin’s advanced underwater technologies and products are perfectly aligned with our expertise in undersea system integration,” said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics Mission Systems. “We have long specialized in many of the technologies that are making UUVs increasingly effective and have strong credentials integrating UUVs into naval platforms.”

“With the added capability to design and manufacture UUVs, combined with our commitment to speeding innovation to our customers, this acquisition positions us well to further support our U.S. Navy customers,” he said in a statement.

Bluefin's Knifefish is part of the U.S. Navy's fleet of UUVs.

Bluefin Robotics’ Knifefish UUV is part of the U.S. Navy’s mine countermeasures.

Already in the same boat

In 2014, Bluefin won a $7.1 million contract to develop the Bluefin-21 UUV, which can carry multiple sensors and payloads. Since then, Bluefin Robotics and General Dynamics have been working on the Knifefish underwater drone.

Last year, the U.S. Navy ordered five UUVs for explosive ordnance disposal, ship hull inspection, and anti-submarine warfare, bringing its fleet of such drones to 15.

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based General Dynamics Mission Systems is a unit of Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics Corp. that produces secure communications and networking, command-and-control systems, sensors, and cyber systems to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

Last year, General Dynamics combined its Advanced Information Systems unit, which provided systems development, integration, and operations support, and its C4 Systems unit, which dealt with communications and information technology.

General Dynamics and Bluefin Robotics did not disclose the terms of their deal.

Other efforts under way

In related developments, submarine builder Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. (HHI) bought the Engineering Solutions Division of The Columbia Group, which builds manned and unmanned undersea vehicles.

The Panama Beach, Fla.-based subsidiary is now known as the Undersea Solutions Group. It employs 30 people. HHI, which is based in Newport News, Va., didn’t dislose the terms of its purchase.

“It makes great strategic sense to bring together a builder of unmanned undersea vehicles and one of the world’s great builders of naval ships and submarines,” said Ross Lindman, senior vice president of Undersea Solutions Group.

Also, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans in April to launch a fully autonomous ship to hunt submarines.

The Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, is 132 feet long and displaces about 130 tons. The Sea Hunter prototype will undergo 18 months of testing.

In addition, Haifa, Israel-bsed Elbit Systems Ltd. has launched the Seagull, an unmanned surface vessel intended to detect mines. The 39-foot-long vessel includes autonomous navigation systems and can be controlled from crewed ships or the shore.

Researchers at the University of Lisbon have demonstrated 3D-printed robotic boats that can learn to operate as a swarm, developing more complex behaviors using a neural network.

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