The Navy’s new offices for unmanned systems — that’s drones or robots to you and me — are a long-overdue reform, two top experts tell us. But, as emphasized by both our outside sources and the new Navy officials themselves, it’s equally important to understand the initiative’s limits. This is not an overhaul of the existing structure. It is a patch. The Navy wants to bring promising technologies out of the lab, through the funding “valley of death” into the regular acquisition system, and ultimately to the fleet.
So Skynet it ain’t. “We are not going to replace Marines. We are not going to go out there and replace sailors,” Frank Kelley, the retired Marine one-star who is now the first deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems, said at a recent AUVSI robotics conference. Nor does the reorganization signal the start of some big new unmanned weapons program or a new infusion of funding.
It doesn’t even put all the myriad existing programs under one roof. Most drones will remain under current management. Of the four that actually do fall under the new structure, two — the UCLASS drone and LDUUV mini-sub — will eventually outgrow it and transfer to the traditional aircraft and submarine bureaucracies when they’re ready to begin engineering work (Milestone B). A new Common Control System for use on multiple types of unmanned vehicles and general research on autonomy (artificial intelligence) will remain under Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, who as head of Navy staff section N99 is Kelley’s uniformed counterpart.
“I only own programs, by the way, that are pre-milestone B,” Girrier told a reporters Friday. “Right now I’ve got a total of four.”