Member Profile: Ronald A. Vien

March 19, 2020

Ronald A. Vien serves as the Technical Director of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport. MTS President Rick Spinrad spoke with Director Vien at MTS’ 2019 Oceans in Action Conference. Following that meeting, Rick had an opportunity to pose a number of questions to Director Vien. Their conversation follows.

Rick Spinrad (RS): What are the marine technologies that you feel are in most need of investment and development for your applications?

Ronald Vien (RV): Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) is a marine technology in most need of investment. The undersea domain is a particularly challenging environment for unmanned vehicles. We share similar challenges faced by the commercial sector: endurance, autonomy, and communications. As military assets, we also face other challenges related to security and information assurance, as well as potential actions by adversaries.

  • ENDURANCE: Energy density and safety continue to be challenges for the UUV/submarine application. While lithium ion batteries offer some of the highest energy densities in a rechargeable format, their inherent danger brings great risk in a submarine environment. Development and integration of technology to identify manufacturing flaws and safety systems for responding to thermal runaway when a battery does fail are of interest to the U.S. Navy.  

    Energy limitations of lithium ion battery technologies often require performance trades that need to be made in the areas of speed or endurance, which requires custom designs to meet the specific mission objectives. Research in the areas of energy harvesting, low powered electronics, fuel cells, and high efficiency engines for Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (XLUUV) are worthy investment areas for systems requiring energy densities greater than afforded by lithium ion batteries
  • AUTONOMY: The undersea domain does not provide the luxury of continuous real-time communications and therefore UUVs must have the ability to operate autonomously and respond to changes in its environment in a manner that both protects the vehicle and continues efforts to meet its mission objective. Autonomous control systems must be able to perceive and adapt to varying sea states, currents, bottom topography, surface vessels, other undersea vessels, fishing nets, and various man-made seaborne structures. Opportunities for research and development include improved sensor systems to better respond to changes in the near field environment, improved topographical data for various ocean environments, control systems that can react to entanglement and other constraints on the vehicle, and artificial intelligence systems that can reallocate system resources based on operational and performance constraints.
  • COMMUNICATIONS: The Department of Defense (DoD) has witnessed the proliferation of Unmanned Air Vehicles at a rapid pace. With the ability of real-time communication via satellite links, the air community has the ability to sustain persistent communications with the host command. UUVs do not have this luxury and the need for reach-back capability is essential for long endurance missions. Technologies that address the communications gap while both on the surface and underwater are rich investment areas. Unlike the commercial market where stealth is not a priority, low probability intercept communications are of particular interest to the Navy. 

RS: How can a society like MTS be most effective in helping the Navy move technology from the lab to applications?

RV: The DoD uses Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) to communicate technology maturity. When interfacing with government activities, being able to communicate the maturity of a technology allows the Navy to better identify the technologies best suited for funding and sea test opportunities. More mature products in the TRL 6-9 range can gain great benefit by participating in a Navy sea test event. Sea test demonstrations during structured events give Navy leaders the ability to witness a product in a representative operating environment. One opportunity is the Navy’s Advanced Naval Technology Exercises (ANTX). The Naval Undersea Warfare Division, Newport was the originator of the ANTX event and the construct has proliferated throughout the Navy. ANTX events are now conducted throughout the country at various times throughout the year. ANTX targets specific Navy needs and opens the doors to industry and academia to demonstrate their products for little or no cost. 

MTS can best support the Navy by identifying dual-use technologies that have both military and commercial applications. In the 1960’s, the DoD drove Research and Development investments and technology advancement. Starting in the 1970’s, commercial industry took over, resulting in the adoption of many commercial technologies by the federal government. Many of the undersea vehicles in use today have been adopted from the commercial market, some requiring only minor modifications to serve specific Navy needs. MTS’s insight into the commercial market gives them a unique perspective into the wide range of undersea technologies that may have dual-use applications. 

RS: What training/education challenges are you facing for your workforce?

RV: Our greatest challenge is growing the next generation of technical experts in the undersea domain. A majority of our recruiting efforts target the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. One challenge in recruiting for the Navy civilian workforce is that we require full background investigations, drug testing, and U.S. citizenship, which can greatly restrict the candidate pool in some of our most desired technology fields. We hire from the full spectrum of educational levels including Bachelors, Masters, PhDs, and post-docs. While college degrees provide the necessary foundational knowledge, our challenge is to nurture and grow that expertise to meet the unique needs of the Navy. To address this challenge, I have continued to maintain a robust education and training budget that not only funds advanced college courses but also allows for the development of specialized technical courses developed by our own in-house experts. These courses range from one-hour technical briefs to multi-week programs with knowledge checks throughout the curriculum. Our most prestigious program is our Division’s Fellowship program, whereby candidates undergo an extensive screening process and, if selected, attend school full-time, receive full pay, and receive living expenses if attending schools outside the local area.  This program is extremely competitive, but it allows our employees to focus their energy exclusively on their educational coursework while not having to worry about working a full-time job to meet living expenses.

RS: What advice might you give to the small businesses that are emerging in the areas of platform and sensor development?

RV: The technology needs in the undersea domain for platforms and sensors span the full range of the ocean environment. The Navy has needs for systems that can operate from the littorals to full ocean depths. Where feasible, we are leveraging proven technology from the commercial sector. Commercial industry has made significant investment in technology domains applicable to oil exploration and topographical mapping for bottom surveys. Sensor technologies include SONAR, temperature, salinity, depth, and radio frequency systems that allow for remote communications. The ability of our UUVs to have full acuity of their environment is essential to mission success.

I recommend that any small business learn more about the government’s Small Business Program. The federal government has an extensive Small Business Program to inform small businesses how to work with the federal government. They help guide small businesses through the required paperwork necessary to be formally approved to work with the government and give them insight as to where contracting opportunities may best exist for their company. It is an extremely successful program and a great way for small businesses to enter into government work and to identify opportunities where Navy needs align with their technical capabilities.

RS: How might professional certification of marine technologists serve your needs?

RV: As technology evolves, we are seeing a need for more specialized expertise other than those taught through a traditional engineering curriculum. New technological fields are opening on a regular basis and the need to grow expertise in those areas is essential to effectively communicate with peers and understand how best to utilize this new technology. Professional certifications ensure a baseline standard of educational knowledge along with professional and ethical requirements in order to obtain and maintain certification credentials. 

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