The US Navy has awarded Austal USA a $44 million contract modification to integrate and demonstrate autonomous capability for one of the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport (EPF) ships currently being built.
Austal is the primary contractor on the shallow-draft, all-aluminum, commercial-based catamaran program and has so far delivered 12 vessels in the class to the navy.
The autonomy package will be introduced on the 13th EPF ship, the future USNS Apalachicola, which is currently under construction at Austal USA’s Mobile, Alabama shipyard.
“Winning a $44 million contract is welcome from a revenue perspective, but strategically this contract award is even more significant for Austal,” CEO Paddy Gregg said.
“Autonomous vessel capability has been identified as an area of strategic importance by the US Navy, so it is promising for Austal that the US Navy has awarded Austal USA a contract for the design, procurement, production implementation and demonstration of autonomous capability of one of our vessels, the Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) 13, the future USNS Apalachicola.”
Austal did not elaborate on what degree of autonomy USNS Apalachicola will have following the conversion.
In a report from July 2020, the House Armed Services Committee said the navy initially expects these vessels to be minimally manned rather than fully unmanned in order to maximize concept of operations (CONOPS) development. The committee recommended the navy to modify existing mature manned ships to support autonomous operations in order to develop CONOPS rather than procuring new ships that will need to support manned operations, but will eventually be fully unmanned.
By featuring autonomy systems, EPF 13 is joining the Ghost Fleet Overlord vessels, which are former commercial ocean-going vessels integrated with equipment on board to create unmanned surface vessels.
EPFs are capable of transporting 600 short tons 1,200 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots. Each vessel includes a flight deck to support day and night aircraft launch and recovery operations. The ships are capable of interfacing with roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities, as well as on/off-loading vehicles such as a fully combat-loaded Abrams main battle tank.