Austal USA to Build Saildrone Surveyor USV

The Mobile, AL-based shipbuilder will manufacture Saildrone’s 65-foot USV.

Austal USA facility in Mobile, AL. Courtesy Austal USA.

Saildrone and Austal USA are thrilled to announce a strategic partnership designed to meet the rapidly growing demand for Saildrone’s largest class of uncrewed surface vehicles. This new partnership provides the US Navy and other government customers a cutting-edge solution for maritime domain awareness (MDA), hydrographic survey, and other missions requiring persistent wide area coverage.

The 65-foot (20 m) Saildrone Surveyor is designed for deep ocean mapping and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) applications, above and below the surface. The Surveyor was developed and designed by Saildrone and will be manufactured exclusively by Austal USA in Mobile, AL. With its industry-leading expertise in aluminum shipbuilding, Austal USA is uniquely equipped to fabricate the Surveyor’s aluminum hulls, ensuring rapid expansion of the fleet. 

“We are extremely pleased to enter into this agreement with Saildrone. It is a great fit as both of us are leaders in our respective markets and we both strive to provide leading-edge solutions to the US Navy,” said Austal USA President Rusty Murdaugh. “With our lean manufacturing techniques and serial production capabilities, Austal USA will provide large-scale fabrication of these vehicles and with our partner, Saildrone, rapidly get the capability to the fleet.”

Autonomous vessel capability has been identified as an area of strategic importance by the US Navy. Alabama has been investing in uncrewed technology, quickly becoming the epicenter of autonomous naval architecture. Saildrone and Austal represent cutting-edge uncrewed technology: Saildrone’s extreme endurance vehicles powered by renewable energy will be built alongside the continued development of the US Navy’s Overlord vessels and the conversion of EPF 13 fast transport vessel into an autonomous platform. Both companies’ investments in autonomous technology will contribute to new jobs in Alabama and the continued growth in south Alabama’s development as a center for uncrewed surface platform technology.

“Saildrone is the clear world leader in small uncrewed systems, with a track record of almost one million ocean miles under our belt on our 100-strong fleet,” said Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO. “Austal is leading the way in the large uncrewed sector, pioneering autonomy and reliability of much larger systems capable of carrying much heavier payloads. We see these two technologies as extremely complementary. Building these two extremes of size in the same facility, and leveraging Austal’s advanced manufacturing capabilities, will dramatically accelerate our ability to get saildrones into the hands of our customers.”

Rigorous sea trials have shown that the data quality the Surveyor can collect rivals that of the most advanced ocean survey ships in use today—meeting or exceeding International Hydrographic Organization standards.

As with all Saildrone vehicles, the Surveyor is autonomous and uncrewed, offering extreme endurance, reliability, and cost-effective operations. The Surveyor has been optimized for maritime security and ocean mapping missions. It provides International Hydrographic Organization (IHO)-compliant multibeam ocean mapping down to 23,000 feet (7,000 m). During the Surveyor’s first Pacific crossing from San Francisco to Hawaii, it demonstrated that the data it collects exceeds the quality delivered by ship-based methods. 

Ocean mapping is typically done by survey ships, which are expensive, difficult to book, and powered by fossil fuels. Operating without crew, the Saildrone Surveyor can operate continuously for up to 180 days, delivering high-quality information faster and at a fraction of the cost and carbon footprint of traditional survey ships.

Saildrone’s MDA solution uses advanced machine learning (ML). The company’s proprietary ML model, which can automatically recognize and classify objects in real time, was trained on Saildrone’s unique data suite of labeled maritime images, containing millions of images captured during missions over the past seven years. Saildrone’s masthead 360° optical camera system combined with the ML model delivers real-time, visual detection of targets at sea, including “dark” vessels that may not be transmitting their position. These detection events are then fused with other data sources—radar, AIS, and acoustics—to deliver a fully informed picture of the surrounding maritime domain.

The first Surveyor was built by Saildrone in Alameda, CA, and launched in January 2021. That vehicle is currently mapping areas of the Aleutian Islands, as part of an intra-agency effort facilitated and led by the NOAA Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute. Austal will begin manufacturing Saildrone Surveyors for the US Navy in October 2022.


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