Navy researchers pick General Dynamics to upgrade Black Pearl unmanned underwater vehicles with new payloads

April 16, 2024
The company also will build five uniquely modified Black Pearl-class UUVs, and provide UUV maintenance, at-sea operations support, and engineering.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Navy researchers needed a company to replace, upgrade, and modify their fleet of Black Pearl-class unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to accommodate a variety of new sensor and signal-processing payloads. They found their solution from the General Dynamics Corp. Mission Systems segment in Quincy, Mass.

Officials of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington announced plans on Thursday to award a contract to General Dynamics to design, develop, build, integrate, and test Black Pearl-class unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

General Dynamics -- the original designer of the Black Pearl UUV -- will design and modify NRL's existing Black Pearl-class UUVs to accommodate newly developed NRL payloads.

The company also will build five uniquely modified Black Pearl-class UUVs to accommodate payloads developed and provided by NRL, and provide UUV maintenance, at-sea operations support, and engineering of the specialized modified vehicles during research missions.

Related: Northrop Grumman develops unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) payload delivery system for sensors and weapons

The original Black Pearl design has a 3-to-5-nautical-mile per hour operating speed, a 400 meter depth capability, a minimum of 18 kilowatt-hour energy storage, and a real-time GPS-aided fiber optic gyro (IXSEA PHINS III), inertial navigation system (INS) integrated with Doppler velocity log instrument capable of measuring the vehicle's horizontal position, velocity, and attitude.

The position accuracy drift rate while traveling submerged on a straight line, is 0.15 percent of distance traveled, or less. The system has an over-the-horizon (OTH) communication capability for periodic vehicle status, monitoring, and redirection using Iridium SATCOM system while the vehicle is on the surface.

The UUV supports several payload types, supplied by NRL researchers, that may include broadband low frequency sonars for MCM and ASW; environmental data sensors such as water depth, speed of sound in water along vehicle path, water temperature, and water current); and payloads for acoustic modem research (ACOMMS).

It can carry several sensors and payloads at once in swappable payload sections and battery modules for in-field mission reconfiguration. The UUV is a deep-rated ocean drone that can be launched and recovered from a simple A-frame or docking head.

Related: Boeing continues support for large unmanned submarines with modular payload bays for flexible missions

The Black Pearl is based on the Bluefin 21 design from Bluefin Robotics, which General Dynamics acquired in 2016. The Bluefin 21 design is 16.2 feet long, 21 inches in diameter, and weighs 1,650 pounds. It can dive to nearly 15,000 feet, can operate for 25 hours on one battery charge, and moves at speeds to 4.5 knots while using a total of 13.5 kilowatts of electricity.

The UUV is a popular vehicle for deep-dive research and counter-mine operations. The UUV is the basis for the Navy General Dynamics Knifefish surface-mine countermeasure unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV).

NRL Acoustics Division officials want to enhance their current fleet of UUVs to accommodate new sensor and signal-processing payloads, as well as the purchase of new UUVs, to support their current and future research programs. NRL released a request for information on this job in late March.

Related: Navy eyes unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) weapons payloads to stop or disable 160-foot ships at sea

General Dynamics will:

-- develop a new tail cone compatible with an NRL-supplied Teledyne Pathfinder Doppler Velocity Logger (DVL) for operation in relatively deep water;
-- integrate the NRL payloads into Black Pearl systems;
-- ensure that all of the design modifications are integrated appropriately;
-- fabricate, integrate, and test the modified Black Pearl systems; -- Build and test five Black Pearl UUVs;
-- build a battery section, including batteries, for each of the Black Pearl UUVs;
-- build an empty payload receiver section for each of the Black Pearl UUVs;
-- build a nose section for each of the Black Pearl UUVs;
-- integrate all of the vehicle sections and conduct laboratory testing; and
-- provide topside support equipment for use with the Black Pearl UUVs, including RF deck box with antenna, Iridium deck box with antenna, Sonardyne Dunker kit, RDF receiver and antenna, battery chargers, vehicle carts and shipping cases, and ruggedized operator laptop with operator software.

General Dynamics will do most of the work on this contract in Jacksonville and Panama City, Fla.; San Diego; Whidbey Island, Wash.; Honolulu; and the Baltic Sea.

For more information contact General Dynamics Mission Systems online at, or the Naval Research Laboratory Acoustics Division at

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