New autopilot technology powers modernized submarines

- St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

Navigating new waters with the Royal Canadian Navy

After four long-range patrol submarines crossed the ocean from Britain's Royal Navy to join the fleet of the Royal Canadian Navy, they were renamed HMCS Victoria, Windsor, Chicoutimi and Corner Brook. These Victoria Class submarines have since been equipped with new systems that are essential to their ongoing operation and will include a state-of-the-art autopilot control system designed and developed in Canada.

To modernize these vessels, Hans Pall, a Senior Engineer with the Department of National Defence (DND), and his team were tasked with identifying the most critical and high-priority items requiring replacement. This included the autopilot system which, when engaged, automatically adjusts and compensates for any disturbance that could affect the submarine's set course through the water, either on the surface or when submerged.

This meant finding the right partners to help design, build and test a new autopilot system from scratch before installing it and testing it at sea. Realizing that they needed outside expertise, Pall's team enlisted the help of the National Research Council's (NRC) Marine Vehicles program, whose specialties include developing advanced control technologies.

Modelling for success

While submarines are built for longevity, they still require regularly scheduled upgrades to remain operationally up to date. "Getting background information about the original autopilot system would have been helpful," says Pall. "But, like much of the intelligence in defence circles, that information was classified, so we had to figure it out for ourselves."

What began as an advisory role quickly expanded into a true collaborative partnership among NRC, DND, DRDC Atlantic and Montréal's L-3 MAPPS, the supplier of control and simulation solutions selected to build the new system. Phase one included developing the design specifications for the new autopilot system, followed by the creation of a numerical modeling evaluation tool based on DRDC's submarine simulation software and the evaluation of prototype designs.

The second phase involved the construction of a working model submarine 1/15th the size of the actual vessel and submerging it into a massive 200m x 12m x 7m tank—the largest facility of its kind in Canada—at NRC's facilities in St. John's, Newfoundland. By testing the model in NRC's towing tank, the teams were able to collect full-scale baseline data on the existing autopilot systems in order to build the new software.

Full steam ahead

NRC's modelling facility proved an ideal testing ground for the upgraded autopilot system as it allowed DND to see the trial software in action as the model submarine could be manoeuvered on command. This helped them to assess how well the system worked and to move into production with confidence. It also provided the teams with an opportunity to do some advanced analysis before taking the project into the open waters.

According to NRC project manager and systems engineer David Millan, NRC's marine models can be reused or customized to any number of different projects of specifications. "We can build models of not only ships and other marine vessels, but also harbours to test whether different ships can get in and out safely," explains Millan. And by simulating various sea conditions in the towing tank, it "gave all partners the information they needed to fulfill their roles," adds Pall.

While DND continues to work with NRC on the full-scale at-sea trials, the success of this collaborative approach to technology development goes beyond the public sector. It means that Canada can now offer this innovative technology to the global marketplace. All with the goal of propelling Canadian industry forward.

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