Magazine article National Defense

Former Classroom Vessel Becomes Floating Navy Lab

Magazine article National Defense

Former Classroom Vessel Becomes Floating Navy Lab

Article excerpt

The Office of Naval Research--the scientific arm of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps-has converted a small, aging training ship into a platform for testing new technologies intended for the fleet.

The vessel-known as the Afloat Lab, YP679--is a 108 foot-long wooden-hulled yard patrol craft, built in the mid-1980s by Peterson Builders, of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Since the early days of World War II, the Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md., has employed such craft to teach midshipmen the arts of navigation and seamanship.

After the academy retired the craft in 1998, the ONR decided to bring it back to life. Its mission now would be to see how promising new technologies perform at sea-subject to salt, wind, extreme temperatures, vibration and the motion of waves-before they actually are installed on ships in the fleet.

The reason for ONR's interest in the Afloat Lab is the same one that made the vessel useful for midshipmen to learn the ropes, explained the program manager, Capt. Sharon Elaine.

"It has the same machinery, electronics and navigation systems as larger Navy ships," said Elaine. "That makes it an ideal platform for testing new technologies for shipboard use."

Elaine is a Navy reservist on two years of active duty. In civilian life, a computer software engineer from California's Silicon Valley, she is a 22-year veteran of the Navy, who has served on a number of combat ships. She received this assignment, she said, because her superiors

at ONR "know I love ships."

For about a year after the Afloat Lab was declared excess property, it remained docked at Naval Station Annapolis, just across the Severn River from the academy. During that period, "a lot of stuff got pilfered-or perhaps I should say 'borrowed,"' said Joseph F. Mearman, senior electrical engineer for Anteon Corporation, which operates the Afloat Lab under contract to ONR.

"They were going to throw the boat away," he said. "We recommended that ONR take it over.

ONR agreed to do so, using a $1.5 million congressional plus-up in its 1999 budget to refurbish the craft. The work included repairs to the hull and replacing "a lot of sea-water valves, which were in a very poor condition," Mearman said.

The work, however, went quickly, he said. "In less than two months, we were sailing laps out here in the Severn." Operating the Afloat Lab costs about $1 million per year, he said.

The vessel has been outfitted with the latest, cutting-edge technology, he said. For instance, a self-healing communications network has been installed, using what is called survivable automation technology, or SAT It is designed so that if one link is damaged, other parts of the system remain functional, Mearman said.

The Afloat Lab takes its nickname, the "Starfish," from this technology, noted Elaine. "A starfish functions without a brain, relying instead on radial nerves running the length of each ray and connecting to other radial nerves via a nerve ringing the body," she said. Each starfish tentacle, she explained, is capable of acting as the "leader" when the starfish moves.

The Afloat Lab's SAT operates under the same principle, Elaine said. It allows vital ship systems to be restored automatically after a communications break.

In all, the vessel has 185 sensors and actuators, controlled by 83 computers, located from stem to stern, Mearman said.

A high-resolution, 360-degree camera has been mounted on the craft's mast, providing views in all directions. This ability can be particularly useful in protecting ships against terrorist attacks, such as the one that disabled the USS Cole, Mearman explained.

"This camera can scan the horizon, looking for suspicious activity, and it can zoom in across a harbor or along the dock to get close enough to reveal actual facial features," he said.

Improving Situational Awareness

ONR is working with the camera's manufacturer--RemoteReality, of Westborough, Mass. …

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