As China churns out warships, the US Navy is looking for drones and AI to help it pick up the pace at its struggling shipyards

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With maintenance backlogs hampering fleet readiness, the US Navy is hoping that autonomous systems and artificial intelligence can fix its overburdened shipyards.

The service envisions dockyard facilities humming with drones and robotic cranes operating under minimal human supervision.

“Technologies for maintaining and sustaining ships, aircraft, and ground vehicles have advanced significantly in the past 50 years,” according to a new Navy research solicitation. “Yet, the DON [Department of the Navy] sustainment community has struggled to pilot, and integrate those same technological advances into public shipyards, fleet readiness centers, and ground vehicle depots.”

To revitalize its four public shipyards, the Navy is focusing on three areas that will “improve the Navy Shipyards’ productivity and increase their maintenance throughput to support the combat readiness of the Navy”:

Multiple types of drones are at the heart of the concept, including aerial drones and unmanned underwater vehicles, as well as remotely operated vehicles that are controlled by a human operator through cables. They could inspect and repair ships while sparing human workers from exposure to toxic substances and hazardous conditions.

“These added capabilities will fundamentally change the shipyard work environment, allowing for faster and more reliable forms of inspection, material delivery, work standardization, security, and condition reporting,” the Navy notice said.

Significantly, the Navy wants to partner with the commercial sector to create mutual benefits for the government and industry. “The Navy sees commercial development in autonomous systems in commercial logistics, inspection of facilities and commercial ships that can be leveraged to reduce development and transition costs,” according to the solicitation.

At the same time, “the Federal Government sees the development of these capabilities as benefiting industrial maintenance activities in partnership with the Navy at commercial shipyards. The ability to keep critical assets in operation is a common need for which the Navy is seeking willing commercial partners.”

The result may be autonomous dockyard systems operated by private contractors. “Service and or maintenance contracts may be procurement alternatives to direct acquisition of equipment,” the notice said.

By turning to AI and automation, the Navy is following a trend that is already sweeping the US and other economies. Labor shortages, combined with corporate cost-cutting, have steadily led companies to put robots in jobs previously assigned to humans. The political consequences of laying off dockyard workers — who are paid about $43,000 a year on average — remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, the Navy has a shipyard problem that has to be fixed. A 2020 Government Accountability Office report found that “75% of planned maintenance periods were completed late for aircraft carriers and submarines in FY 2015-2019, with an average delay of 113 days for carriers and 225 days for submarines.”

USS Boise, nuclear-powered attack submarine that has been sitting in port awaiting maintenance since 2017, has been called the “poster child” for that problem, but many ships have faced protracted delays for repairs and modernization, including several cruisers, the missile-toting warships that are the Navy’s largest surface combatants.

Skipping routine maintenance and delaying needed repairs and upgrades do more than undercut a ship’s efficiency. They also make fixing a vessel that much harder when it finally goes into dockyard.

The Navy’s maintenance woes have generated more concern for US officials who are worried by China’s steady naval expansion. The Chinese navy now has the world’s largest battlefleet, with about 350 surface combat vessels and submarines. China also has much more shipbuilding capacity than the US to continue its expansion.

The US Navy has a battleforce of about 300 ships and plans to increase that to 381. However, it makes little sense to spend billions of dollars on new ships when existing vessels can’t be properly maintained. Robots may provide some relief, but the Navy and the US shipbuilding industry may need deeper solutions.

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