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The Pentagon plans to test a full-scale autonomous ocean-going replenishment system made up of technology-driven modules that turn current barges into self-moving platforms capable of landing and refueling combat aircraft. They’ll form a network of intelligent, floating military gas and replenishment stations.

Sea Machines, an autonomous marine navigation business, is the project’s primary contractor. The Boston-based company stated on Thursday that it has advanced a multi-year other transaction arrangement with the Defense Innovation Unit, or DIU, which focuses on rapid prototyping of autonomy projects for the Department of Defense.

This shift to the second phase of this OTA-based project commits up to $3.1 million to the work’s experimentation and deployment. Defense and business officials hope to advance the military’s operational capabilities at sea through it, with the support of autonomous technologies.

In an email to Nextgov on Thursday, Philip Bourque, Sea Machines’ head of business development, said, “The kit changes standard deck barges into self-propelled, expeditionary platforms that can refill rotary wing aircraft, surface boats, and shore stations. The ‘kit’ is simply an engineering combination of select expeditionary components that meet the DOD criteria for refueling and landing those aircraft,” says the company.

This work derives from a solicitation that the U.S. startup responded to, which resulted in a competitive down-select and award, according to Bourque. Sea Machines was hired in October to design the computer vision-equipped kits and demonstrate their capabilities.

The project is now moving on to the proof-of-concept level. Sea Machines is supported in this pursuit by Huntington Ingalls, Bell Flight, and FOSS Maritime. According to a press release shared with Nextgov, the latter—a Seattle-based maritime transportation and logistics company—will provide “naval architecture, support engineering, and operations management to outfit a remotely commanded deck barge to land helicopters and host a scaled fueling station for aircraft, surface vessels, and shore replenishment.”

The platforms can operate as self-propelled barges thanks to Sea Machines’ autonomy and propulsion technologies. And, according to Bourque, “the barges are employed to overcome logistics difficulties for replacing vital assets.”

Originally, the company developed a packaged system for autonomous command and control of commercial surface vessels. Since then, the Department of Defense has tapped the company to service the US Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, and other parts of the Navy, recognizing the product’s potential to suit its own, forward-looking demands.

“The kits are a viable alternative for enhancing airplane and surface vehicle endurance,” Bourque stated. “While the kits’ primary purpose will be to act as [commercial off-the-shelf] refueling platforms, there are a variety of other uses for them, including medical and humanitarian missions.”


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