Three torpedo-like vessels lay in sections on wheeled carts inside a security-tight warehouse in Newport, tagged with the words “Property of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center — if found please return,” in case the vessels get lost during underwater trials. But, if the navigation system developed by NUWC engineer Glenn T. Donovan of Bristol continues to perform as it has, these vessels will become property of the U.S. Navy.
In engineering circles, Mr. Donovan has developed a technology so cutting-edge he received the 2010 Arthur S. Flemming Award for Applied Science, Engineering and Mathematics, presented for excellence in the federal service by the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Commission and George Washington University.
For NUWC, which has been developing military weapons and systems for 140 years, Mr. Donovan is the first employee to receive the award. It’s an achievement he accepts with honor and humility, placing the importance of his work on how it will help the soldiers who use it.
“I was caught off-guard,” Mr. Donovan said of the award. “I didn’t expect it.”
Mr. Donovan holds a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a master’s in engineering from Brown University. During his graduate studies, he worked in robotics, using technology similar to autonomous systems used in military applications.
He began working in the Autonomous and Defensive System Department at NUWC, on autonomous underwater vehicles (unmanned AUVs) used by the military to collect data or complete other missions. First, he worked in systems maintenance for NUWC’s Manta program, an earlier version of the Navy’s unmanned vehicle efforts, terminated due to its size and difficulty to transport. Then he began work in 2002 on efforts to make AUVs more autonomous and undetectable. His new navigational tool would replace the reliance on a global positioning system (GPS).
“Once the vehicle is underwater, the signal can’t reach the satellite,” said Mr. Donovan. In order to communicate, it has to surface, making it susceptible to discovery and interception. “The big challenge is to be unseen.” The problem he faced, he said was, “How could it find its way without surfacing?”
In order to accomplish this, the AUVs need two things: an adequate power supply to keep them moving, and the ability to keep them on course over greater distances.
Using mathematics and map-matching, Mr. Donovan assembled a new system. With maps of the sea floor, he converted the terrain into mathematical data points and programmed it into an on-board computer. Sensors that measure the speed of the AUV, along with its elevation and direction, provide additional data to calculate bearings as it moves through the water. Comparing algorithmic equations against data collected from sensors, the technology developed by Mr. Donovan pinpoints the AUV through its last-known location and where it thinks it is based on sensory data. If the system’s algorithms and sensor calculations cannot agree on the vehicle’s coordinates and location, it is designed to shut itself down. The AUV will rise to the surface and activate the GPS backup to validate its location, before plunging back under and resuming its mission.
“New information is collected and calculated every 5 or 10 seconds,” said Mr. Donovan, depending on the speed of the AUV.
The navigation system developed by Mr. Donovan, called Inertial Navigation System Position Error Correction (INSPEC), will allow AUVs to stay underwater for longer periods without getting lost. He’s spent the last eight years developing the system. AUVs equipped with his INSPEC design have completed test missions, some lasting 24 hours, and everything is looking good. “We haven’t lost any so far,” he said.
“The real goal of the AUVs is they can go into areas where submarines can’t,” he said.
At 12 feet long, the AUVs tested with the INSPEC system can easily slip into shallow waters, where manned vehicles can’t go or might be easily detected because of their size. While the AUV being used in the testing is about twice the length of a man, the INSPEC navigation system is small enough to fit into the slot of a toaster and can be used on AUVs of varying sizes, simply by adjusting some calculations.
The INSPEC system can be used on a variety of unmanned vehicles that have all sorts of purposes, Mr. Donovan said.
“AUVs are huge right now,” according to John H. Woodhouse Jr., a NUWC communications specialist, referring to the popularity of the unmanned concept. “Anything we do is going to have a huge interest.” Recognizing the potential impact the INSPEC system will have on AUVs, Mr. Woodhouse said the navigation tool may also have commercial and academic interest.
Mr. Donovan sees his civilian efforts as a bridge to the enlisted men and women who will benefit from his work.
“I view what I do as working for them,” he said. While INSPEC is still considered a prototype, the testing success has promise that “it is something that they can actually use,” he said.
As he continues work on the prototype design, his objective is to expand an AUV’s capability to navigate for days or weeks — work that military officials are watching closely.
Mr. Donovan received his award, along with other 2010 recipients recognized for their service in a variety of disciplines, at a ceremony on June 6 in Washington, D.C.