Autonomous ships: The US Navy adds one to its fleet

It is designed to remain at sea for up to 30 days and requires no human intervention.
Ameya Paleja
EPF-13 is the first Expeditionary Fast Transport of the US Navy
EPF-13 is the first Expeditionary Fast Transport of the US Navy


USNS Apalachicola, the largest surface ship with autonomous capabilities in the fleet of the U.S. Navy, was delivered recently by its manufacturer, Austal. The Henderson, Australia-based company teamed up with L3Harris and General Dynamics Mission Systems to deliver the autonomous ship, a press release said.

Autonomous ships have been in the works for the past few years and have recently started demonstrating their capabilities. Last June, Interesting Engineering reported how the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) crossed the Atlantic Ocean, retracing the voyage that was undertaken nearly 400 years ago by its human crew. Many other companies have been working to build autonomous systems for long-haul vessel transport, but Austal USA has now built one for the U.S. Navy.

The autonomous ship in the U.S. Navy fleet

Austal USA currently supplies the Spearhead-class of Expeditionary Fast Transport ships to the U.S. Navy. The Spearhead-class transport ships have a crew space for 41 sailors and can berth another 104 people or seat 312 soldiers who might be in need of ferrying assistance over short distances.

These vessels have a top speed of 40 knots and can work equally well in shallow waters too. Austal deploys its machinery control system (MCS), an in-house automation design that brings the ship's machinery operation to the bridge in all the Spearhead vessels. The centralization of controls allows these vessels to be minimally manned, but Austal has taken it a step further by making them completely autonomous.

USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13) has a hull length of 337 feet (103 m), making it the largest surface vessel in the U.S. Navy. It is also the first Spearhead vessel to support vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) for the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor military aircraft. Austal's new design has equipped the EPF 13 with automated maintenance, health monitoring, and mission readiness, which allows it to remain at sea for a period of up to 30 days.

Prior to delivery, EPF-13 went to sea on five occasions over several months, where its autonomous systems were tested and analyzed. Now, EPF-13 has been established as an autonomous prototype and paves the way for operations such as radar and sensor craft as well as unmanned missile platforms in the near future.

The press release did not confirm how much additional space the autonomous system takes on the EPF-13 vessel or when the unmanned operation is likely to be tested. As we saw with the MAS experiment, the real test for autonomous ships is when they hit the waters and begin their journeys.

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