Unmanned Systems

Large, sub-hunting drone 'the shape of things to come'

Military researchers and leaders last week broke a bottle over the bow of a new class of sea-going vessel—an unmanned, sub-hunting ship with autonomous features capable of going on missions for months at a time, covering thousands of kilometers of ocean.

Christened the Sea Hunter, the prototype ship, built by Leidos as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program, will now undergo open-water testing in waters off the coast of California. The tests, expected to take about two years, will be run by DARPA and the Office of Naval Research, which jointly funded the recent testing phase of the prototype.

The 132-foot long, 140-ton surface vessel was developed under DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, program. In addition to pushing the limits of unmanned systems—in range, autonomous capabilities and sensor refinements—researchers expect the program to save money. The Sea Hunter, which could be used for mine countermeasures in addition to tracking quiet diesel-electric submarines, will cost about $15,000 to $20,000 a day to operate, compared with the $700,000 or so it takes to operate a destroyer.

“The unprecedented unmanned surface vessel you’re looking at right here—this heralds the look and shape of things to come,” Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, director of Unmanned Warfare Systems, said at the event in Portland, Ore., where DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar performed the christening before Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and other officials.

The robotic prototype ship, built for $23 million, has a range of 10,000 nautical miles at 12 knots. “If [Sea Hunter] can demonstrate its range, if we can validate its operating cost per day and prove that it’s safe to operate,” Work told DOD’s Armed with Science blog, “then to me it opens up a whole new vista of things that the Navy can do.”

The Navy has put a lot of emphasis on developing unmanned vessels, both for surface and underwater missions. To date, many of the systems have been smaller and launched from ships. The ACTUV’s size and capability allows it to be launched from a pier, which would save the Navy the trouble of integrating it with another ship.

Among recent advances in underwater systems are semi-autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, that can work in concert to find a neutralize mines or examine a ship’s hull. Others also are working on building bigger vessels—Boeing recently announced the Echo Voyager, a 51-foot long UUV that can operate for months.

Defense officials feel that the technology behind ACTUV, as well as its size and endurance, represents a game-changing development for unmanned systems and the Navy in general.

“What we’ve created together with the Navy is a truck that can carry more payload over greater distances, stay out longer, and be more capable than anything else—and do it highly autonomously because it’s a big vessel and it’s got that flexibility,” said Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager.

“And this is going to be a navy unlike any navy in history—a human-machine collaborative battle fleet that will confound our enemies,” Work said. “The other thing this ship represents is incredible innovation.”

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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