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US Navy fast transport turned drone ship begins sea trials

US Navy EPF unmanned trials
US Navy file photo of a Spearhead-class ship

A new US Navy fast transport ship that has been converted into an optional unmanned ship is performing a series of test events that will evaluate autonomous capabilities integrated into the shipboard configuration, demonstrating that a large ship can become a self-driving platform.

USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13) is the thirteenth ship in its class that will be delivered by Austal USA to the US Navy this year.

What sets EPF 13 apart from the her sister ships is the autonomous package that has been integrated by the shipbuilder under a $44 million contract modification from June 2021.

Referred to by the navy as unmanned logistics prototype trials, each test event increases the perception capabilities and complexity of behaviors demonstrated by the autonomous systems. Test evolutions to date include point-to-point autonomous navigation, vessel handling and transfer of vessel control between manned to unmanned modes.

“The autonomous capabilities being demonstrated by this prototype system represent a major technological advancement for the EPF platform, the navy at large and our industry partners. EPF 13 will be the first fully operational US naval ship to possess autonomous capability including the ability to operate autonomously in a commercial vessel traffic lane,” said Tim Roberts, Strategic and Theater Sealift program manager, Program Executive Office (PEO) Ships. “This testing is a game changer and highlights that there is potential to expand unmanned concepts into existing fleet assets.”

In addition to Austal, L3 Harris and General Dynamics are part of the industrial team tuning the idea into reality.

Future test events will add levels of difficulty and include night navigation, and differing weather and sea states. These trials will set crucial groundwork for autonomous vessel operations, to include vessel encounter and avoidance maneuvering and compliance with International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

Also known as the Spearhead-class, EPFs are shallow draft, commercial-based, catamarans designed for rapid, intra-theater transport of personnel and equipment. The EPF’s high speed, shallow draft, and ability to load/unload in austere ports enables maneuver force agility in achieving positional advantage over intermediate distances without reliance on shore-based infrastructure.

In addition to autonomous operation trials, the US Navy is equipping new ships in the class with enhanced medical capability and capacity.