By R. BRUCE Striegler

“The autopilots aboard Canada’s Victoria-class submarines are 1970’s vintage technology. They’re still fully functional, however, it’s a matter of maintainability.” David Milan, Group Leader, Electronics, Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering at Canada’s National Research Council says that the role the NRC has with the Navy’s sub auto-pilot project includes a complete vessel upgrade, system by system. “Our role is to aid the Navy evaluate the upgrades, to ensure the product we’re getting is good for service.”

Senior engineers at the NRC were tasked with identifying the most critical and high-priority items requiring replacement, which included the sub’s autopilot. The system, when engaged, automatically adjusts and compensates for any disturbance which could affect the submarine’s set course on the surface, or when submerged. The group realized they would need to find the right partners to help design, build and test a new autopilot system from scratch before installing it and testing it at sea. This led to enlisting the help of the NRC’s Marine Vehicles program, whose specialties include developing advanced control technologies.

According to Lieutenant-Commander (L.Cdr) Charles MacDonald, the Department of National Defence Project Manager on the Victoria-Class Autopilot System, the project used an open and competitive procurement strategy. The Government of Canada first issued a Letter of Interest to determine which companies were interested in working on this project in November 2011. Upon completion of bid evaluation, L-3 MAPPS of Montreal was selected to design the autopilot system and awarded the competitive contract in the fall of 2012. L.Cdr MacDonald notes that the efforts have been collaborative, “The autopilot control algorithm was designed by L-3 MAPPS and tested at NRC Canada’s facility in St. John’s Newfoundland in the spring of 2014.” He points out that the autopilot design (hardware and software) was completed and tested in the L-3 MAPPS factory in Montreal in the fall of 2015. “The NRC highlighted their work as part of the evaluation and development of the autopilot system at CANSEC in May.”

What began as an advisory role quickly expanded into a true collaborative partnership among NRC, DND, Defence Research and Development Canada, (DRDC Atlantic) and Montreal’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.

Currently, the autopilot system has not yet been installed in any of Canada’s four Victoria-class submarines. Following the successful completion of training, the autopilot system will be installed in HMCS Windsor in the fall 2016 / winter 2017 timeframe. Following the installation of the autopilot system in HMCS Windsor, sea trials are scheduled to begin in spring 2017. L.Cdr MacDonald says that once the autopilot system is fully installed and tested, L-3 MAPPS could request Government of Canada’s permission to export the product to other countries. This would be in accordance with standard export control processes. “Additionally, I understand NRC, as a result of close collaboration on this project, has acquired new skill sets that have equipped them to handle submersible platforms that could be used on other types of projects within their areas of expertise.”

Challenging personnel loss hits project midway

“In my opinion, the greatest challenge we have faced on the project to-date was the development of the Statement of Requirements and the review of the entire design process. It saddens me to say that the former Project Manager for this initiative, Mr. Hans Pall, who was a Senior Engineer with the Materiel group, unfortunately passed away just prior to the factory acceptance testing of the autopilot system. As you can appreciate, this was a great loss to the program and his work in developing the requirements and reviewing the design aspects were key to the success of the project thus far. We were extremely privileged to have had Mr. Pall as part of the project staff during a critical time in the project. We now have a new Project Manager, Dr. Jie Cai who has taken on the project with the same vigor as displayed by Mr. Pall and we look forward to where this project takes us next.”

The processes developed in this project, says L.Cdr MacDonald, such as the physical and numerical testing conducted by NRC and data gathering at sea, “have helped to develop highly skilled and qualified personnel that could potentially carry on with other similar style projects. Any time an organization can develop new skill sets, it becomes better equipped to take on larger and more complex projects.” Lieutenant-Commander MacDonald says that as far as the autopilot technology itself, “There may be opportunities to implement upgrades to the system in order to improve the operational capability of the platform in the future. Once the autopilot system is installed on the Victoria-class submarines, feedback from the operators will be key in determining any potential further upgrades or improvements to the system.” MacDonald says the primary focus for the project at this time is to replace the existing system with a modern system that is supportable while maintaining the same functionality.

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.”