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Naval Ghost Ship Passes Panama Canal

June 8, 2021
The offshore vessel Riley Claire, now known as the Nomad, has been converted with the technologies needed for autonomous operation, although it was in manual operation through the Panama Canal.

The U.S. Navy’s experimentation with unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) recently included the passage of the aptly named Nomad through the Panama Canal, albeit with “manned” assistance through the canal. As part of the Ghost Fleet Overlord program, the Navy is partnering with the Office of the Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) to learn more about the long-range capabilities of autonomous vehicles. Nomad traveled from the Gulf Coast through the canal to the U.S. West Coast, a total of 4,421 nautical miles, with 98% of that distance in autonomous mode and the Panama Canal in manual mode.

Formerly an offshore patrol vessel called Riley Claire (see the figure), Nomad is one of two offshore vessels so far converted to autonomous operation. The earlier vessel, Ranger, traveled the Panama Canal in October 2020. SCO is working with contractors on the construction of two additional USVs as part of the Ghost Fleet Overlord program. Nomad’s autonomous transit provided the opportunity to test vessel endurance, autonomous operations, and interoperability of government command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence systems. Its remote mission command and control was conducted from an ashore Unmanned Operations Center operated by U.S. Navy Sailors from Surface Development Squadron One.

“This is another significant milestone for SCO’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program and supports the Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework by adding a second Overlord vessel to the West Coast. The SCO Ghost Fleet Overlord program serves to inform Navy prototype efforts by integrating mature technologies to accelerate Service priorities and is a key piece of the build a little, test a little, and learn a lot philosophy articulated in the Navy Unmanned Campaign Framework,” said SCO Director Jay Dryer. The Ghost Fleet Overlord program is currently in its second phase which is scheduled to conclude in early 2022, at which point both Ghost Fleet Overlord vessels will transition to the Navy for further experimentation.

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