KEYPORT, Wash. -- For the past 100 years, Keyport has been home to one of the Navy's primary efforts to research, develop and test torpedoes, which earned the small, waterfront community the moniker of "Torpedo Town, U.S.A."
Now, Keyport's Naval Undersea Warfare Center is becoming the modern testing ground for a new type of technology that silently operates in the depths -- unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs).
Those UUVs are essentially "pre-programmed, small submarines," said Cmdr. Scott Smith, commanding officer of the Navy's newly formed Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron 1.
The squadron's UUVs range from 10-inch torpedo-shaped tubes to large submersibles more than 80 inches in diameter. Many of the UUVs used at Keyport are commercially available, from companies like Bluefin Robotics or Riptide Autonomous Solutions.
The squadron has been tasked with developing the tactics, techniques and procedures that will shape how the Navy will use the unmanned undersea vehicles.
Eventually, the Navy will use UUVs for a variety of missions. Today, they are capable of reducing the risk to divers in the water and extending sensory capabilities for underway submarines, Smith said.
"We'll use UUVs in those areas that are too dangerous to put a manned vessel, and on the other side, we'll use UUVs where it's just too mundane for a long-term mission to keep a sailor out there," Smith said.
"Those are really the two places I see UUVs working, but we'll never replace the manned systems. In my mind, we'll always need submarines out there doing what submarines do."
The Navy currently doesn't operate unmanned undersea vehicles from submarines, but Smith foresees a potential for rapid growth with the platform.
"Five years down the road," Smith said, "I'd like to see two UUVs on every submarine in the fleet."
The squadron has already tested its expertise and training with a few real-world situations. Last December, a team of six of the squadron's sailors deployed to assist with the international search and recovery efforts of the Argentine navy's lost submarine, A.R.A. San Juan, in the south Atlantic Ocean. The submarine disappeared Nov. 17 with 44 crew members on board.
Although efforts to locate the submarine's whereabouts have been unsuccessful, the crew was able to provide assistance in the early days of the search efforts with the UUVs' capability to perform side-scanning sonar, which uses sonar echoes to create images of large areas of the seafloor.
In the past year, the squadron has grown from 28 sailors with a handful of operational UUVs to 35 sailors and more than a dozen UUVs. By next fall, Smith said the squadron's manpower will almost double in size and, by fiscal year 2023, it is projected to quadruple from its current size.
With that growth, Smith said the Navy is interested in adding billets that could bring subject matter experts to the squadron, such as meteorologists who could analyze sea conditions for operational planning or operational specialists from the surface community.
"We recognize there's going to be UUV operations from all facets of the Navy and we don't want to stovepipe ourselves just into submarines," Smith said.
Unlike its aerial counterparts, once an undersea drone is launched, it can't be controlled by an operator on the ground. That means before launch, a UUV's entire mission protocol has to be coded in advance of getting underway.
"Once they go underwater, you can't control them with any type of Wi-Fi or signals," Smith said. "Within about 2,000 yards, you can do acoustic; you can put beeps and bops into the water with very, very small messages, to tell them to come up to the surface or to tell them to abort."
Operations typically start with a mission briefing early in the morning, and their execution can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 hours.
For the most part, the UUV's size determines the length of time it can be in the water and what type mission it will be sent on.
"We're limited by power. So if you want a long duration, long stay time with a heavy use payload, you're not going to get that from a small one," Smith said.
While underway, smaller UUVs are typically used to gather imagery, survey sea conditions or extend the sensor reach of sub. Larger unmanned undersea vehicles can take on more complex missions, such as acting as an independent sensor on its own mission.
Getting the UUV into the water is the easy part, but at the end of the mission, recovery can prove to be more difficult, Smith said.
"Once you find the UUV, you have to get close enough that you can snare it or hook it without getting too close to damage the side of the boat," Smith said.
Smaller ones typically require a two-man lift. Medium ones require a specialized trailer -- Smith calls it a modified boat trailer. Sailors in immersion suits escort the UUV into the trailer.
After recovering the UUV, crews bring back the data they collected.
Smith said the installation's proximity to the water makes it an ideal place for testing the squadron's tech.
"We can pick a UUV right up, and you and I can carry it out to the water right out there and put it in," he said.
The squadron is housed in Keyport's Barb Hall, which is named after the legendary World War II-era Gato-class submarine USS Barb.