Austal USA was awarded a $44 million autonomous design and construction contract by the U.S. Navy on June 7. The award is an undefinitized contract modification for the expeditionary fast transport USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13) to establish the ship as an autonomous prototype.

The shipyard will design, procure, implement, and demonstrate EPF 13 as an autonomous platform. The award builds on Austal USA’s previous autonomous work for the U.S. Department of Defense.

The enhancements will allow EPF 13 to operate autonomously while retaining the capability for manned operation. The work will include installation of a perception and autonomy control suite, as well as several automation enhancements to the machinery plant improving hull, mechanical, and electrical (HM&E) reliability while reducing the amount of personnel required for operations and maintenance at sea.

Austal originally designed the EPF with a highly automated machinery plant that requires only a small team to crew the ship. This not only reduces cost, but also centralizes ship operations to the bridge.

“As we’ve seen over the last decade, the expeditionary fast transport continues to provide new capability after new capability,” Austal USA interim president Rusty Murdaugh said in a statement announcing the contract. “The evolution of this platform and its deployed performance from humanitarian assistance to operational support brings unmatched value to the warfighter. The potential of the EPF to operate unmanned opens the door to a range of new missions for the EPF ranging from logistics support to mine warfare and strike operations using vertical launch systems (VLS).”

Two EPFs are under construction at Austal USA’s shipyard in Mobile, Ala. with a third on contract awaiting start of construction.