For over a century, the aviation and automotive industries have been manufacturing vehicles and planes at considerable scale. Both of these industries have cultivated a manufacturing culture wherein large production lines and even larger supply chains piece together these vessels for rapid and cost effective assembly. Shipbuilding, on the other hand, has remained almost entirely unchanged for generations.
We build ships; we don’t manufacture them at scale, hence the telling compound verb. This is where ACUA Ocean’s vision lies: to turn shipbuilding into shipmanufacturing at a historical juncture where British seas require more advanced technology than ever to monitor the compendium of challenges they face, in all realms: from trade, to national security, to the environment. This is where our long endurance, hydrogen-powered USVs come in.
When it comes to Unmanned Surface Vessels, the ultimate logistical advantage of USVs is as a force multiplier. If we continue to design and build vessels individually then you end up with a 1x multiplier, and that is part of the reason why USV technology has largely failed to realise its boundless potential in open waters. The ocean is vast - 70% of the earth’s surface. Building individual USVs is simply too expensive and provides little of the derived benefits of scale.
The Royal Navy’s new Madfox USV is a prime example of this issue. Built by L3Harris at a cost of over £5m, it has a diesel engine, requiring regular, costly maintenance and, whilst it can achieve a sprint speed of 40 knots, it has a typical endurance of just seven hours - giving it an incredibly limited range. Meanwhile, until Saildrone’s recent $60m Series B investment, even the most modern USVs were still welded by hand. One vessel at a time.
Why invest in one USV at a cost of anything from £1.5m to £5m, when you could be buying fleets of three to ten vessels to protect larger areas and collect greater data, at a price point of £500k per vessel? Here at ACUA Ocean, we plan to harness the untapped power in both manufacturing and deploying USVs at scale, which will ensure a steep reduction in capital expenditure as well as operational cost savings, allowing USV technology to finally flourish in British waters at this crucial moment in their history.
Oceans must be the front line of our national security strategy
Our oceans and waterways are the new front line, requiring, as with any front line, urgent and innovative adaptation and action on the mainland. New technology will provide advanced defence capability and planning, enabling better targeting, focussing our surface fleet on engagement of threats and not detection.
In the UK, 95% of all our trade travels by sea. Delays result in severe shortages and cost rises, as we have certainly seen in the last few months here in Britain. Meanwhile, we are almost totally reliant on offshore wind and oil to power our connected lives. Finally, 90% of all our data, communication and financial transactions are relayed via subsea cables. As of 2021, it is estimated that there are over 1.3 million kilometres of submarine cables in service globally. Undoubtedly, our oceans and waterways are home to critical national infrastructure.
More so, it goes without saying that our maritime borders, marine protected areas and exclusive economic zones are at constant threat from illegal activities; from illegal fishing to human trafficking to the movement of narcotics. More concerning still are those threats from bullish nations. A new report from the Overseas Development Institute sheds light on the scale and potential impact of the challenges ahead. The Report into China’s Distant Water Fishing (DWF) fleet estimates China’s DWF fleet to be five to eight times larger than previously thought, with up to 16,966 vessels.
How can a handful of military vessels actively monitor and manage this type of fleet? Let alone similar fleets of vessels heading our way yearly from countries like Russia.
To this end, the Royal Navy has announced a new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance ship by 2024 to protect “critical” undersea cables, with a crew of fifteen and likely costs in excess of £30m to potentially even £50m. One vessel to protect tens of thousands of miles of critical offshore and subsea infrastructure. The solution doesn’t have the scale to meet the problem. The force multiplier does not have sufficient force.
The importance of swarms as force multipliers
With 70% of the Earth’s surface and around 90% of its biosphere covered by oceans and waterways, sustainable management of our oceans requires a scalable solution that provides geographical coverage.
While satellite technology provides increasing levels of coverage and analysis, it does not replace the need for physical vessels on the water. Satellites can provide a new level of intelligence, but this data is invariably limited by a range of factors including weather conditions, the technology used on the vessels being tracked, and the increasing need for high resolution video footage for prosecution.
Relaying satellite data of illegal activity to a manned patrol vessel that is two to three days’ sail away is essentially pointless. What is required is a scalable solution for safety, security and environmental management.
The answer is, of course, in swarms of USVs - built and operated at scale to increase geographical coverage and decrease costs. Swarms also offer true persistence. Even if one vessel needs to return to port due to failure, swarms can be reconfigured to maximise the coverage area.
Operating swarms of vessels offers substantial cost efficiency savings, as AI and autonomous system design can be more easily adopted offshore, creating a gradual move towards optimised operator levels where a single operator can command multiple vessels at one time. There are also substantial revenue benefits in terms of data collection, and the benefits of better data density collected simultaneously, instead of a single data point at any one time, making data far more reliable.
While the Navy’s new Madfox USV is a great initiative, the real future of USVs lies in maximising scale, from both a cost, geographical coverage and capability perspective.
There will always be a need for large crewed surface vessels like the new M-ROS ship, but next we need to understand how these types of vessels can act as motherships, operating in tandem with swarms of USVs - possibly operated and maintained from onboard, providing not less but more highly skilled work to crew members.
Only once cost and capability scalability are met will we finally be able to realise the force-multiplier benefits of USVs. Only once swarms of USVs are operating in our waters will we realise just how much of a game-changing investment their implementation will be, giving greater protection to all of us here on the mainland, and indeed the environment.