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US Navy trialing Snakehead LDUUV for missions despite plans to kill its development

Snakehead LDUUV undergoing trials
Deployable from the dry deck shelter of a submarine, Snakehead is designed to provide guidance and control, navigation, situational awareness, propulsion, maneuvering and sensors in support of the intelligence preparation of the operational environment mission. Photo: US Navy

Several months after it was first launched, the US Navy’s submarine-launched Snakehead large displacement unmanned undersea vehicle (LDUUV) prototype is continuing trials despite the service’s plans to discontinue its further development.

A team led by NUWC Division Newport staff most recently demonstrated an end-to-end intelligence preparation of the operational environment (IPOE) mission with the Snakehead at the Narragansett Bay Test Facility on July 21.

The Snakehead LDUUV conducted a long distance ingress, performed a sonar survey box, and then egressed back to the test facility, demonstrating a new milestone in total sortie endurance. The sortie, conducted with the Draper Laboratory-developed maritime open architecture autonomy, successfully collected sonar data utilizing technology from the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory.

Envisioned as a modular, reconfigurable, multi-mission LDUUV deployable from submarines and surface ships, Snakehead provides guidance and control, navigation, situational awareness, propulsion, maneuvering, and sensors in support of the IPOE mission.

The navy says the Snakehead is innovative in the areas of hull materials, lithium-ion battery certification, advanced sensors, and launch and recovery from both submarines and surface vessels.

However, the fate of the Snakehead program is currently unclear, as the navy is proposing to cut further phases of the program after it reportedly ran into problems with integrating the Snakehead with a Virginia-class submarine.

Snakehead is also not the only vessel of its kind being developed by the navy. The service recently launched the Boeing-built Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV), while DARPA is also working on the Manta Ray UUV program.

The accomplishment of the latest mission in the Snakehead’s intended operational environment was a big step for the program to gain confidence in the vehicle software and hardware systems, as the team pushes toward extended endurance operations and layering additional system capability, said Chris DelMastro, head of the Undersea Warfare Platforms and Payload Integration Department.

The IPOE mission is a critical step toward understanding an area of interest and feeds into planning a relevant course of action to support the warfighter.

To date, Snakehead has conducted 155 in-water sorties and more than 78 hours of runtime utilizing a government-owned and controlled modular open system architecture to include vehicle controller software; autonomy software; and command, control, and communications software — TopsideC3 — for mission planning, operations and analysis.

Since last year, the team conducted up to 190 hours of simulations using full-up vehicle hardware-in-the-loop and software-in-the-loop simulation tools. These simulated missions ensure the software operates as intended and that mission parameters are set correctly and confirmed by the vehicle.

“The success of Snakehead testing is a direct result of the time and energy spent designing the vehicle. In-lab hardware and software simulations are major contributors to the success in water,” said Allison Philips, Division Newport’s test and evaluation lead for Snakehead.

“The testing to date has demonstrated a baseline capability,” said Cheryl Mierzwa, Division Newport’s technical program manager for Snakehead. “Future testing will provide additional capability, autonomy, and endurance to discover the system utility.”