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Austal USA partners with Saildrone to build high-tech, unmanned marine vessels in Alabama

A cutting-edge marine vessel that can sail the high seas without a crew will be manufactured exclusively in Mobile through a partnership between Austal USA and California-based Saildrone Inc.

The two companies on Tuesday announced their strategic partnership in connection with the Saildrone Surveyor autonomous “uncrewed” surface vehicle.

The partnership “combines Saildrone’s … technology with Austal USA’s advanced manufacturing capabilities,” according to a news release issued by the companies. The companies said the partnership will provide the U.S. Navy and other government agency customers “a cutting-edge solution for maritime domain awareness, hydrographic survey and other missions requiring persistent wide area coverage.”

According to the news release, the partnership will help meet rapidly growing demand for Saildrone Surveyors. The 65-foot Surveyor is designed specifically for deep-ocean mapping and “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) applications,” both above and below the surface. All Saildrone vehicles are autonomous and uncrewed, providing “extreme endurance, reliability and cost-effective operations,” the companies said.

Austal USA, with its expertise in aluminum shipbuilding, will fabricate the Surveyor’s aluminum hulls.

“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 U.S. Navy,” Austal USA President Rusty Murdaugh said in the release. “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.”

Austal expects to begin manufacturing the Surveyor vehicles for the Navy in October.

Surveyor Sea Trials (60 sec) 1080p from Saildrone Inc. on Vimeo.

“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,” Jenkins said.

According to the news release, autonomous vessel capability has been identified as an area of strategic importance by the Navy, with Alabama quickly becoming the “epicenter of autonomous naval architecture.”

The keel of the Saildrone Surveyor. (Courtesy Saildrone)

The news release said the partnership between Austal USA and Saildrone will “contribute to new jobs in Alabama and the continued growth in south Alabama’s development as a center for uncrewed surface platform technology.”

In July Austal USA was awarded a $156 million Navy contract option for the construction of two Navajo-class Towing, Salvage and Rescue Ships (T-ATS). With the award, the company is now under contract for four T-ATS. In April the company marked the beginning of a new era at its Mobile shipyard with the opening of a state-of-the-art facility for production of steel ships for the Navy and other customers. The addition of steel-shipbuilding capability complements the company’s aluminum-shipbuilding expertise at the Alabama site.