Supporting the Royal Australian Navy's Campaign Plan for Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Emerging Missions and Technology Trends

by Linda Slapakova, Paola Fusaro, James Black, Peter Dortmans

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Research Questions

  1. What is the landscape of RAS-AI technologies and missions in the maritime domain?
  2. What is the likely trajectory of RAS-AI technologies and missions in the maritime domain out to 2040?
  3. What are the likely technological enablers shaping future RAS-AI missions in the maritime domain?

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) recently launched a strategy for developing and employing robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence (RAS-AI) to be delivered through a campaign plan. A RAND Australia research team is supporting the RAN in this endeavour by building an evidence base to help identify and shape the underpinning activities. This report provides an overview of the current landscape and trajectory of maritime RAS-AI technologies in the near and long term (out to 2040) and a high-level review of the missions that might be possible in the near, medium, and long terms in light of relevant technological and non-technological enablers.

Rather than examining the wider integration of artificial intelligence in maritime operations, this report focuses on advances in missions and technologies underpinning uncrewed platforms, including uncrewed aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles. In addition to outlining the key technological enablers for near- and long-term RAS-AI missions, the report points to three key principles that should be taken into account in RAS-AI capability development: (1) a focus on the interaction of multiple technologies (both new and 'legacy' systems) rather than a single technological solution; (2) consideration of complementary advances in defence and commercial RAS-AI systems; and (3) monitoring of non-technical factors, such as evolving regulatory, legal, policy and ethical frameworks that might significantly shape future technology adoption pathways.

Key Findings

A rapidly evolving technology landscape has enabled an expansion of RAS-AI missions in the maritime domain

  • The span of uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) missions has grown particularly because of increasing (though still relatively limited) reach, adaptability, and survivability of UAVs.
  • Increasing use of uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) in support of Navy missions has been enabled by advances in communications, payloads and modularity, though constraints include reliance on remote control from a crewed platform and limited integration with other vehicles.
  • Uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs) missions have expanded due to increasing ability to operate at greater depth, over longer ranges and with advanced sensors and payloads. However, limited endurance and unresolved barriers for underwater communications, networking and deepwater navigation still impose constraints on UUV missions.

Across all platforms, maritime RAS-AI missions are likely to expand in the near term, enabled by advances in several key technology areas

  • Advances are in such areas as autonomy, swarming, interoperability, secure communications and information exchange, survivability, propulsion and energy management, as well as advanced sensing and development of multimission platforms.

Technological as well as nontechnological barriers could constrain certain RAS-AI missions in the far term

  • Far-term RAS-AI missions might include deployments in contested environments and in offensive autonomous and kinetic applications, though the latter is likely to be significantly constrained by ethical, legal and regulatory barriers.
  • The far-term missions and technology landscape are characterised by significant uncertainty, and a wider variety of potentially disruptive future RAS-AI missions, technologies and tactics may need to be explored through follow-on research.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Warfare Innovation Navy (WIN) Branch within the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and conducted by RAND Australia with support from RAND Europe researchers.

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