by Mark Ollig
We have autonomous, self-directing drones flying in the sky, so why not have autonomously controlled ships traversing the oceans of the world?
The good folks at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, in cooperation with the US Navy, work in a program called: Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV).
This program unites autonomous technologies with a sonar system, mine-sweeping technology payloads, and anti-submarine warfare tracking capabilities.
They added all these technologies within a prototype naval ship’s operating platform.
The newly-built ship is an advanced surface vessel designed for mission durations lasting months, and covering thousands of miles – without requiring a human crew onboard.
This unmanned, independently-operating craft includes collision-avoidance software.
It is designed to maneuver and perform complicated missions using what DARPA calls a “sparse remote supervisory control model.”
A human operator is able to monitor, control, and send course destination commands remotely to the ship via a satellite communications link, as well as line-of-sight radio.
The $20 million prototype was first placed in the water near its construction site in Portland OR, Jan. 27.
The US Navy and DARPA officially christened this new, 132-foot autonomously operated, robotic prototype naval vessel April 7.
The ship was given the name Sea Hunter.
It’s equipped with radar and cameras, and is able to search for enemy submarines; however, it is unarmed if it does come across one.
Sea Hunter includes an Automated Identification System, which is able to detect and identify any vessel over 300 tons, broadcasting its position and classification.
The ship weighs about 140 tons under a full load displacement (including 40 tons of fuel), and is powered by two diesel engines.
Sea Hunter is capable of reaching speeds of around 31 miles per hour (or 27 knots for our yacht-sailing readers).
Future technology “on-ramps” have been taken into account, allowing future-designed sensors and technological payloads to be added to Sea Hunter’s software architecture, and its autonomy system.
Yours truly was not invited to Portland to attend Sea Hunter’s christening ceremony, so I watched DARPA’s recorded video highlights of the event.
This ceremony was performed in front of about 100 invited guests, including senior US Navy and government officials.
“What we’ve created together with the Navy is a truck that can carry more payload over greater distances, stay out longer, 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 for ACTUV.
Rear Admiral Robert Girier, director, Unmanned Warfare Systems, said the Sea Hunter “heralds the look and shape of things to come.”
“Now, we can actually start exploring with the Navy what really can be possible, when you have an unmanned vessel of this sort,” said Arati Prabhakar, DARPA director.
US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Work said this is the first time the US Navy ever had a “totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship.”
Sea Hunter represents an “incredible innovation,” he added.
Work suggested autonomous ships signify; “A human-machine collaborative battle fleet that will confound our enemies.”
During the ceremonial christening, a bottle of (non-alcoholic) champagne was broken across the bow of the impressive-looking Sea Hunter, by Arati Prabhakar.
“It’s my privilege and honor to christen thee Sea Hunter!” she proclaimed before striking the front part of the ship with the bottle.
The ship’s short-term testing will temporarily include having a human being onboard as a back-up, to ensure the autonomy system is performing correctly.
The testing of Sea Hunter’s capabilities is planned to last through 2018.
Sea Hunter will incur daily operating expenses totaling $15,000 to $20,000, based upon a cost model Scott Littlefield mentioned during an April 6 press briefing.
DARPA posted a video to YouTube showing Sea Hunter cruising in the water near Portland at: http://tinyurl.com/bitsSeaHunter.
A photo of Sea Hunter can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/bits-darpa1.
Check out this amazingly detailed DARPA time-lapsed video showing the construction, walkthrough, and brief voyage of Sea Hunter: http://tinyurl.com/bits-walkthrough.
Here’s a high-quality DARPA video showing Sea Hunter’s maneuverability testing on the water as seen from the air: http://tinyurl.com/seahunter2016.
DARPA’s official website is: http://www.darpa.mil.
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