11 January 2000

Who needs seamen?

by Kate Melville

In an interesting piece of science, engineers are now designing automated warships that may see only half as many naval crews.

"One goal is to build a ship that does not need any maintenance while at sea," says Scott Sudhoff, associate professor at Purdue University's School of and Electrical and Computer Engineering. "It's supposed to be highly robust so that, even if you take a missile hit, that ship could continue to fight its way into battle and continue with its mission without needing any maintenance until returning to port."

Anyway back to reality. An important feature of these new vessels will be systems that automatically switches power around damaged sections of a ship, enabling the weapons, navigation and communication equipment to continue to function.

The US Congress recently approved research funding to develop technologies critical to the system and the U.S. Navy hopes to have the first "smart ships" in operation by 2010.

Apparently future warships will fundamentally different because they will run on electric motors, and their power sources will not be directly connected to the propellers.

Instead, the power source will drive a large electrical generator and the generator will, in turn, provide electricity for the motors that turn the propellers. The rationale is that this sort of system offer far more flexibility for naval architects because the power source can be placed anywhere on the ship.

This type of propulsion system will enable engineers and architects to design modular vessels consisting of several redundant zones. The theory being that if one zone gets damaged in an attack, the automatic controls will instantaneously switch the power to the rest of the ship. However actually achieving this an issue because of issues the myriad possible pathways over which electricity might have to be switched, the number of pieces of equipment needing to be switched on and off, and the ultra-high voltages and currents involved.

The voltage and current will be controlled using electricity processed with semiconductors (known as " power electronics ". However this is a complex process that if it is not done correctly could cause the entire electrical system could fail, something considered to be a bit of a disadvantage in battle situations. So to try and avoid this new mathematical testing techniques to predict the system's behavior under a multitude of conditions are being developed.

In an interesting comment on the complexity of such a project Sudhoff said, "Most people think you just plug something into the wall and it runs. "You can't do that with these devices". Really we thought warships were just like VCR's (only easier to programme)!

This is probably a great thing for the seamen who had been cannon fodder in the past and maybe if they could just get rid of the other half of the crew maritime warfare may be able to be reduced to computers killing each other!

Comment On This Sotry?