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17/11/22: RNZN testing USV operations

The Royal New Zealand Navy’s littoral warfare unit, HMNZS Matataua, has completed trials with an uncrewed surface vehicle (USV).

Commander Trevor Leslie, the commanding officer of Matataua, told ADM that a MANTAS T12 USV from US-based company Maritime Tactical Systems (Martac) was being leased for three months through Australian company Blue Zone Group, Martac’s sales and marketing representatives in the region.

Leslie said that it was being used to investigate whether USVs can “fill the gap between autonomous underwater vehicles and uncrewed aerial systems to provide seamless capabilities.” A spokesperson from the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) told ADM that the lease provided a proof-of-concept period to assess the feasibility of the USV and answer battle lab research questions.

The NZDF battle lab is conducting a series of experimentation activities with the T12 and initial testing of the USV took place in early October. The spokesperson said: “The trials/experimentation occurred in Devonport and Lake Maowhanga in Waiouru, the experimentation is to gauge its utility for hydrographic and bathymetric activities in order to minimise the ‘human from the process’.”

Leslie said that the trials were a “first iteration” to test endurance and the ability to conduct autonomous missions, assure the sensor packages and performance of the platform in shallow water using its bathymetric sonar and interferometric side scan sonar.

Following the initial trials the lease has been to 24 months to enable further experimentation to better understanding of what is required to support an uncrewed surface capability and what the wider implications on NZDF would be. “The Navy Experimentation programme is working with the regional agent to meet this extension through an option to purchase,” the NZDF spokesperson said, “This is a purchase for experimentation purposes and the USV will not be an in-service capability.”

Martac’s MANTAS T12 is a 12 feet-long (3.6 m) and 3 ft-wide (0.9 m) catamaran hull USV that is built from ruggedised carbon fibre. Weighing just 260 pounds (117.9 kg) it has a draft of just 9 inches (23 cm) and has a maximum payload of 140 pounds (63.5kg).

The T12 can achieve a top speed of 25 knots using a twin screw propeller powered by electric motors to a cruising rang of more than 35 nautical miles. It is equipped with the MIND Technology, UUV-3500 hi-res side scan sonar and the Norbit Forward Looking Wideband Multibeam Sonar.

The UUV-3500 can detect medium-large size objects at ranges exceeding 175m with higher resolutions achieved at shorter distances of about 75 metres. The Norbit FLS offers a longer-range detection ahead of the platform up to 250 metres that is used to locate potential military threats that become candidates for further scanning with the UUV-3500.

Leslie said that the sensors offer “detailed 3D images of any in-water systems in the water column such as objects moored to a wire.” He added that the ability of the T12 to partially submerge below the waterline allows the platform to “get in close” to target areas and conduct more “discreet” operations.

According to Blue Zone Group the T12-MCM can operate and receive data in as shallow as four feet (1.22 m) depth and can be launched and recovered from small boats such as RHIBs.

The NZDF spokesperson said the lease extension to the battle lab “will enable RNZN and NZDF to step into the USV space closely behind our partners subsequently making RNZN/NZDF a more informed customer when the time comes to bring future uncrewed surface capabilities into service.”

The UK MoD has already pursued a similar route in 2019 leasing a T12 for testing. According to Blue Zone, because of the USV’s ability to semi-submerge and its low observability in radar cross section and low thermal and noise signature it led to a contract for £1.8million (US$2.4 million) for five units for the Royal Navy (3) and UK Strategic Command (2).

In 2021, US Naval Forces Central Command announced that its Task Force 59 had integrated and evaluated two MANTAS T12 USVs with its patrol craft during a two-day training exercise called New Horizon in the Gulf that also included operations alongside the Royal Bahrain Naval Force.

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