The Navy recently sent an unmanned vessel named Nomad on a trip of 4,421 nautical miles, or more than 5,100 land miles, from the Gulf Coast through the Panama Canal to the West Coast -- almost entirely in autonomous mode.
It was the second long-range autonomous transit through the Navy's Ghost Fleet Overlord program, conducted through a partnership between the service and the Office of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office.
"Our close partnership with SCO on the Overlord program is accelerating the technology demonstration, [concept of operations] development, and operational command and control of unmanned surface vessels in direct alignment with the Navy's plans," Capt. Pete Small, the service's program manager for Unmanned Surface Vessels, said in a news release.
The Ghost Fleet Overlord program, currently in its second phase, focuses on complex naval operations experimentation and integrating government-furnished command-and-control systems and payloads.
In addition to Ghost Fleet Overlord's existing USVs, two more prototypes are under construction to "expand and accelerate the Navy's experimentation and testing," the release states.
As the service faces problems of under-crewing and sailor fatigue, USVs could offer a solution that maintains readiness and reduces existing safety concerns.
"The Ghost Fleet Overlord program … is playing a central role in informing the Navy's new classes of USVs and serving as part of extensive technical risk-reduction efforts," the release said.
Navy unmanned ships will likely be employed in the fleet for missions that are lengthy and dull or dangerous for human crews.
More than 41% of Navy surface warfare officers surveyed experience reduced sleep quality often, and 31.37% indicated that they sometimes experience a delayed reaction time due to lack of sleep during their underway period, according to a May 2021 Government Accountability Office report on Navy readiness.
"Human error is probably the main cause of [the] majority of marine accidents," a report on marine accidents from Promet-Traffic & Transportation found. Fatigue and inadequate communications between crew members were among the most likely factors that cause marine accidents.
Moving forward, SCO Director Jay Dryer said that Nomad, the second Overlord vessel on the West Coast, is key to continuing to expand the Navy's plan to use drone ships.
"The SCO Ghost Fleet Overlord program serves to inform Navy prototype efforts by integrating mature technologies to accelerate Service priorities and is a key piece of the build a little, test a little, and learn a lot philosophy articulated in the Navy Unmanned Campaign Framework," he said. "This is another significant milestone for SCO's Ghost Fleet Overlord program and supports the Navy's Unmanned Campaign Framework by adding a second Overlord vessel to the West Coast."