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at #4267Tingting ZhangKeymaster
Robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence lies at the heart of the navy’s future warfighting strategy — a potential $10bn market for smart underwater systems.
Here’s a new acronym for you: RAS-AI. It doesn’t mean much to some, but the concept it encapsulates – Robotics and Autonomous Systems – Artificial Intelligence – lies at the heart of the navy’s future warfighting strategy. Therefore, it means a lot to SMEs like BlueZone Group, who are eyeing a potential $10bn market for smart underwater systems.
The company, which has bases on both sides of the country, developed its RAS-AI smarts in WA’s energetic offshore oil and gas sector which has long been a pioneer in remote operations and the use of robotic and now autonomous underwater systems (AUV), says chief technology officer and co-founder Darren Burrowes.
Founded in 2015 after a series of amalgamations and takeovers, BlueZone Group reflects the hi-tech strengths on opposite sides of the country.
At its Bibra Lake base near Rockingham the focus is on the fast-moving offshore oil and gas and exploration business, which underpins WA’s underlying technological strengths. This has given Burrowes vital insights into the military underwater systems market, he believes.
“The underwater technology industry is a global industry,” he points out. Rather than compete, his company represents firms like Saab Seaeye, the world’s biggest manufacturer of underwater, electric remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
BlueZone also represents US company Huntington Ingalls’ Unmanned Systems Group (better known as Hydroid), which is now the biggest and most successful manufacturer of autonomous underwater vehicles.
It’s very hard to imagine the navy developing surface or underwater platforms to rival those it can easily buy off the shelf, he says.
“There’s much more opportunity for Australia to develop sovereign payloads, and that’s where we fit in,” he says.
“We have 20 years’ experience of integrating new parts and upgrading old parts for underwater systems.
“Our focus is on developing our sovereign capability and working with the global manufacturers to understand their products and how to integrate into them.”
The US navy has made this easier, he says, because it has demanded more modular and open architecture so the navy itself or smaller firms can integrate specialist payloads into a proven platform.
“This whole field is driven by the fast pace of computer processing, battery storage development, software improvements, just like the consumer electronics market,” Burrowes told The Australian.
“So this whole RAS-AI space is where SMEs like ourselves can provide much more value, just because we can move at a much faster pace.”
The company does classified work to support navy and RAAF anti-submarine training that he can’t talk about, but he’s excited by two impending Defence projects: SEA 1905, which is worth over $1bn and will see navy field new robotic and autonomous maritime mine counter-measures (MCM) equipment to go on two additional Arafura-class patrol boats; and SEA5012, navy’s Integrated Underwater Surveillance System.
The tender for Project SEA 1905 is due out later this year and will see navy select a prime contractor to head up teams of specialist SMEs such as BlueZone Group.
“In three of the four phases of mine warfare — search, classify, identify — that can be done by underwater vehicles,” he says.
The Huntington Ingalls REMUS AUV, which the company already supplies to the navy, is the leading contender for that project, he adds.
“We can do the modular build here in Australia and we can do the sovereign payloads. Or assist integration of DST payloads, or payloads developed by others.”
Project SEA 5012 is worth some $7-9bn, he estimates, and argues that for the money it’s more cost-effective to use an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to conduct persistent, silent surveillance of Australia’s maritime approaches than to lay arrays of seabed microphones.
Last year the company, with fellow-Australian SMEs Acacia Technologies and Sonartech Atlas, won a $7.1m Defence Innovation Hub contract to develop a version of the Liquid Robotics Wave Glider with Australian-developed sonars and processors, with this capability in mind.
Wave Glider is a US-designed energy-harvesting unmanned surface vehicle the size of a malibu surfboard that’s difficult to detect, can remain at sea for months and deploys a UUV carrying an array of sonars and smart propulsion systems far below the surface.
The contract illustrates how companies that support other high-technology industry sectors have the smarts to support Defence as well.
By GREGOR FERGUSON
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