UAS & Robotics

ONR stages international competition for autonomous boats

Embry-Riddle Minion autonomous USV

The team from Embry-Riddle calls its system Minion.


Operating on the established theory that competition helps foster innovation, the Office of Naval Research is sponsoring an international competition this coming weekend to find the best way to make an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) function on their own.

Fifteen teams of college students, from some of the best engineering schools in the world, will take part in the inaugural Maritime RobotX Challenge in Singapore Oct.24-26, ONR said in an announcement. The teams, gathering at Singapore’s Marina Bay, are each working with identical, 16-foot Wave Adaptive Modular Vehicles, attempting to engineer them to perform assigned tasks without remote control. The competition offers $100,000 in prize money.

“Developing autonomy for surface vessels is still in its early stages, and these students have the opportunity to come up with solutions that could set new standards in this field,” Assistant Chief of Naval Research Capt. Rob Palisin, one of the competition’s judges, said in the announcement. “In turn, the Navy gets the chance to observe the best young engineers in action and learn from their approaches.”

The teams taking part hail from the United States, Singapore, Australia, Japan and South Korea, each country with three teams. They’ll each try to give the USV enough “brains” to operate on its own, by integrating sensors, software and other technology.

Among the tasks they’ll have to complete will be detecting and avoiding obstacles, docking, identifying tracking and reporting targets, and searching underwater for an acoustic source, along with autonomous navigation.

Increasing the autonomy of unmanned vehicles is a stated goal of the Pentagon’s 25-year plan for unmanned systems, and Defense Department agencies have long held that competitions are a good way to push technology forward. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, has held a series of Robotics Challenges, each with a different focus (the most recent was emergency response). Earlier this year, the agency also announced a Cyber Grand Challenge to help develop automated cyber defenses.

The military doesn’t rely solely on academic competitions for new technologies, of course, but ONR said competitions can help promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, while potentially finding new innovations to build on existing work. ONR, in fact, recently demonstrated a leap forward in autonomous technology with “swarmboats” that can work in concert to surround a target ship.

The Maritime RobotX Challenge, which ONR expects to sponsor every two years, is being organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation, the National University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering, and Science Centre Singapore. The choice of location and invited participants reflects the Navy’s overall plan to build partnerships in the Pacific region, ONR said.

Teams from the United States include those from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Florida Atlantic University/Villanova and Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Olin College.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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