An Exclusive Interview with Martac
MARTAC (Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc.) is a leading manufacturer of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). ON&T recently sat down with LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley, USN (Ret.), MARTAC’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), at the company’s 72,000-square-foot Melbourne FL-based headquarters and production plant to get his take on this rapidly expanding market.
ON&T: For any readers not familiar with MARTAC, could you give us a brief overview of the company and how you came to work as its Chief Technology Officer?
JR: MARTAC was incorporated in 2011 with a singular focus: to challenge the technical boundaries associated with working in dangerous and often unpredictable marine environments by developing and delivering reliable and innovative uncrewed systems for military, security, commercial, and scientific applications. Initially, MARTAC concentrated efforts on developing a suite of rapidly deployable, fully integrated USVs before reaching a key company milestone in 2018 with the commercial launch of the T-12 (12 ft) MANTAS™ USV, the success of which has gone on to inspire a broader, and larger, portfolio of high performing multi-mission USVs.
I joined MARTAC in 2016 having previously served 22 years in the US Navy where, among other duties, I managed the $1.2 billion Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) program before working for SAIC as an engineering technical director and the lead architect integrator for the DARPA ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV)—better known today as the Sea Hunter USV. My time working on these unmanned systems afforded me a unique understanding of both underwater autonomous vessels (UAVs) and USVs, and how they can—whether working together or independently—bring real-world operational advantages to personnel in the field.
ON&T: Could you elaborate on some of the operational advantages associated with USV deployment?
JR: Our USV models are engineered with one common objective: to optimize Maritime Domain Awareness in the most cost-effective, safe, and accurate manner possible. Whether USVs are used for tactical marine ops in contested waters or acquiring geospatial datasets for subsea infrastructure planning, the shared goal is to execute the mission efficiently, reliably, and without putting people in harm’s way. Our job as a USV designer/manufacturer is to align what’s needed with what’s possible. In a rapidly evolving market, that means defining fit-for-purpose USV platforms that deliver at-sea competitive advantages to our customers in their respective markets.
ON&T: How has the shifting nature of these markets shaped MARTAC’s current USV portfolio?
JR: In short, plenty. All MARTAC base models have been developed to bridge the broadening challenges of operating in maritime environments where manned—or other unmanned systems—may not suffice. But the breakneck speed at which USV technology is advancing, exemplified by the phenomenal diversification of COTS models in recent years, means that companies like MARTAC need to stay ahead of the development curve by actively partnering with clients seeking to incorporate uncrewed systems into their standard operating procedures. This also includes working closely with sensor and communication technology developers.
MARTAC’s ongoing investment in the latest control systems and power sources (we build our own battery packs) has been equally instrumental. Early on, MARTAC mostly produced 3-, 6- and 8-foot USVs, mostly designed to support hydrographic survey campaigns. While operationally on point, once customers saw the USVs in action—true proof of concept, if you like—they quickly began to demand more: more endurance, more speed, more payload capacity. The result was our all-electric T-12 MANTAS, the dimensions of which hit the desired balance of payload (up to 140 lbs. /64 kg), speed (8 – 12 kts cruise / 20 kts burst speed), and endurance (cruising range 60 nm). With the base boat weighing just 210 lbs., MANTAS can also be easily launched from a ship, small craft, pier, or shore.
ON&T: How has MARTAC worked with the naval defense and security markets in recent years?
JR: The proven agility and versatility of MANTAS immediately sparked an interest from the naval security and defense community and triggered the expansion of our USV portfolio. Today, alongside MANTAS, MARTAC offers a family of larger models: the 24-foot T-24, the 38-foot T-38, and the 50-foot T-50, all under our DEVIL RAY branding.
Again, striking the right balance of speed and operational capacity for specific tasks was paramount. The T-24 was conceived for streamlining harbor security and surveillance operations, whereas the T-38, with a top speed of 80 kts and a payload capacity of up to 2,050 kg, is designed for more expansive operations, including missions that require the launch and recovery of ancillary assets, such as other USVs, AUVs, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Interest in our T-50, which is in the design phase right now, is indicative of how naval forces see the long-term integration of USVs for tactical gain. Larger USVs mean heavier payloads and bigger fuel tanks; that means increased utility and range on the water. There is no limit, in theory, to the scaling of size and function of a USV. But there are limits to naval budget, so USVs pose an interesting quandary for those allocating funds for future investments: what dollar percentage should be appropriated to the construction of traditional 500-crew vessels when there are safer, emission light, and ultimately more efficient solutions at hand? With a target production time of a T-38 down to approximately 6 months—as opposed to several years for a fully staffed US Navy vessel—the lead time from concept to acceptance only strengthens the case for USV adoption.
ON&T: Tell us more about the operating procedures involved with MARTAC USVs?
JR: Just like the T-12, the T-24 and the T-38 are remarkably easy to control. Once a customer is trained to operate one MARTAC USV, the switch to another is relatively intuitive. This makes force multiplication—running multiple units at the same time under one control—a real gamechanger. The standard T-24 and T-38 come equipped with a launch and recovery bay specifically designed to support T-12 deployment.
There are three control modes: Manual Control, by which operators can pilot the USV using a standard joystick; Semi-automatic Control, by which the USV will navigate to a set of coordinates and execute assigned tasks within a programmed proximity, say 100 yards, of that waypoint; and Full Autonomy, whereby the USV will leave port and follow a full mission plan, carrying out multiple tasks at multiple waypoints, before safely returning to its recovery point.
At any point, the operator can take full navigational control and/or instruct the USV to reprioritize its sequencing (e.g., inspect something unexpected) or upload an entirely new set of directives (sent to the USV’s mission control system). We recently piloted one of our USVs taking part a naval exercise in Bahrain from our Florida location.
ON&T: How do you see the USV ecosystem developing in coming years?
JR: We can expect to see more diversification of the USV market, servicing two broad end-users in the near term: marine survey needs and defense and security requirements. Are there units that can cross over, like the T-12? Yes, but I see naval forces around the world as the key driver for USV advancement. Whether for logistics or ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) ops, navies will deepen their investment in versatile USVs capable of greater interoperability with less and less supervision. The last point is something of a red herring, though. Will AI fully remove the need for supervision? I am doubtful. We celebrate the capacity of so-called uncrewed operations, but there must be—for now, at least—manpower behind every deployment. So, we are really talking about reskilling and re-tasking technicians in the name of increasingly lean, green, and safe operations at sea. The strict degree of supervision will be determined by regulatory reform, but this shift in operator mindset is critical. This is an important and complementary aspect of the many unmanned naval exercises taking place around the globe.
How the sensor and camera industries progress will also determine the rate of USV acceptance. Camera technology developments significantly broaden the applications for USVs like MARTAC’S (our USVs are sensor and camera agnostic), so we can see units like the T-24 and T-38 (which also has a moon pool option) as becoming suitable for a range of intervention activities, from marine mammal observation to countertrafficking measures to offshore oil spill detection and mitigation.
ON&T: Tell us more about these unmanned naval exercises you mentioned…
JR: These provide MARTAC, alongside other USV manufacturers, with the opportunities to fully demonstrate the latest USV developments to critical influencers and decision makers in the defense sector. In short, they allow us to connect our products with the right customers.
Last December, alongside 16 other developers, one of our T-12’s took part in Task Force 59’s Digital Horizon exercise, a three-week event profiling the latest unmanned and artificial intelligence naval technologies in Bahrain. We followed this up more recently, in March, with a full demo of both the T-12 and the T-38’s as part of the International Maritime Exercise (IMX’23), with one T-38 in Bahrain and a second in Jordan. Having these events take place in regional hubs allows USV manufacturers to station the right vehicles. We have now demoed our platforms across the globe, but the unmanned exercises in the Middle East and out of San Diego, CA are central to our ongoing marketing plans.
For more information, visit: www.martacsystems.com.
This story was originally featured in ON&T April 2023. Click here to read more.