Remotely controlled unmanned vessels with autopilot capabilities will replace two naval ships, with the decommissioning of HMAS Shepparton and HMAS Benalla. They make way for robots, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence that will form Navy’s new optimised hydrographic survey capability. The ships were based at HMAS Cairns, operated as pairs and collected data to help chart Australia’s northern coastline for more than 30 years. They operated using highly sophisticated sonars to map the sea around Australia and the South Pacific Ocean. The Australian Hydrographic Office created charts with the data, enabling vessels to navigate safety.
Commanding Officer Shepparton Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Stevenson said,“Turning up to work each day with a motivated and exceptional team made it worthwhile. Having a small crew was difficult and required everyone to do their job with minimal supervision. It doesn’t leave much redundancy, it’s like a rugby team, everyone has to work together to win.”
Commanding Officer Benalla Lieutenant Commander Michael Casey said,“The survey ships had sailed the same distance it would take to go to the moon and back four times. Old stuff is built to last. I treated Benalla with the respect I would with an old car. Surveying is exploring what we can’t see underneath, we would find things never seen before, such as wrecks, shoals and subsurface obstructions. It’s sad to see them go; these ships have served for over 33 years with distinction and have been home to hundreds of sailors.”
The vessels operated with a maximum of 22 personnel and minimum of 14, who will now go into more deployable survey teams, which operate the autonomous and robotic systems. Shepparton was the “lady of the fleet”, being the oldest commissioned ship in service. HMAS Anzac will now take on the honour. It is expected that the next Navy military survey vessel will be built in Henderson, Western Australia, later in the decade. The transition to the Hydrographic Industry Partnership Program began nearly two years ago, part of a $150 million investment. The Defence Strategic Review accelerated the decommissioning.