U.S. Navy Tests Autonomous Vehicles for Dry-Dock Inspections

Autonomous vehicles recently used for a collaborative competition are putting real-world application to the test by leveraging machine learning to support U.S. Naval maintenance activities.
During the 2019 Director’s Cup, U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) scientists and engineers were challenged to create and field a fully autonomous, artificially intelligent, ground-based vehicle to neutralize a dangerous battlespace.

The Autonomous Dry Dock Survey (ADDS) Team, comprised of NSWC PCD scientists and engineers across three technical departments, partnered with personnel from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNSY) to customize the Clearpath Robotics™ Jackal Unmanned Ground Vehicle platform to tackle a real-world application – specifically autonomous inspections of naval shipyard dry docks.

In addition to collaboration with the PNSY Innovative Projects Team, the ADDS vehicles provide the Navy with significant cost savings, while ensuring the ability to monitor safe environments within the nation’s shipyard facilities.

Dr. Patrick Walters, NSWC PCD mechanical engineer, said the lessons learned from the Director’s Cup competition were a natural starting point for the development of the ADDS robot.

“Before the start of the project, the Director’s Cup teams at NSWC PCD had already tackled many of the challenges in developing an autonomous unmanned ground vehicle, such as obstacle avoidance, path-planning, and navigation.”

Blake Ivy, NSWC PCD systems engineer, said using the Jackal as a base vehicle in the competition, allowed the group to carry on the knowledge gained and provide a robust system faster than developing a solution from scratch.

According to Ivy, the co-development of the autonomous system with PNSY will save the government time, money and valuable resources.

“Current requirements for surveying dry docks require a manual scan with a small hand-held sensor. The platform we are co-developing will utilize a larger sensor, and allow autonomous inspection of areas,” said Ivy. “This means scanning will finish in less time and personnel can monitor remotely. This vehicle will provide an expected cost savings of up to 450 man-hours per dry dock, per year. Multiply that times all of the Shipyard dry docks and you can see significant annual savings to the Navy.”

Ivy said this project might not have happened without the Director’s Cup competition.

“Demands for autonomous systems have increased in recent years,” said Ivy. “The Director’s Cup competition allowed members of the NSWC PCD workforce to develop the skills necessary to compete, and thus expanded the number of available engineers to build these systems.”

The ADDS project is sponsored by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Maintenance and Industrial Operations Directorate Innovation Branch (SEA04X3) and led by the Tactical Innovation Implementation Lab of Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport, further reinforcing the One NAVSEA philosophy.

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