US military research organisation DARPA’s new unmanned submarine-hunting surface vessel has been officially named.
Held in Portland, Oregon, on 7 April 2016, the christening ceremony saw DARPA’s ‘Sea Hunter’ technology unveiled to the world. The event served to mark this vessel’s progression from a solely DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) programme to one also now involving the US ONR (Office of Naval Research). Together, DARPA and ONR will spend two years putting Sea Hunter through sea trials, progressively expanding its capabilities envelope. These Sea Hunter tests will take place around the San Diego area and conclude in September 2018.
After that, Sea Hunter won’t necessarily actually join the frontline US Navy but it might do. Otherwise, it could strongly influence the next-generation of operational unmanned naval platforms. In DARPA programme manager Scott Littlefield’s words, the ultimate aim is “to build something very affordable, which could probably be acquired in large numbers.”
Sea Hunter USV
The Sea Hunter autonomous USV (Unmanned Surface Vessel) was developed and constructed as part of DARPA’s ASW ACTUV (Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle) work. Its advent sees a new naval technology era open up, that of unmanned systems able to sail the world’s seas for months on end with no crew members physically on them.
In theatre, Sea Hunter would perform anti-submarine missions and be deployed in the mine countermeasures role. Its chosen name both references these taskings and tips its hat to preceding trailblazing naval development programmes such as the Sea Shadow experimental stealth ship and the Sea Fighter experimental LCS (littoral combat ship).
Sea Hunter Features
First launched in January 2016, Sea Hunter features a trimaran layout and is 132 feet (40 metres) long. Powered by twin diesel engines, it has a maximum speed of around 31 miles per hour (50 kilometres per hour) and an estimated range of 12,000 miles (19,000 kilometres).
According to DARPA’s Sea Hunter christening news release, a host of non-standard features arise from the vessel’s lack of crew. These include its internal layout, which gives enough room for maintenance to be performed but not for any people to be permanently present.
A full autonomy suite enables Sea Hunter’s unmanned operations. This suite, DARPA says, keeps these operations in line with existing maritime laws, COLREGS (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) among them. State-of-the-art hardware and software is on constant watch to ensure Sea Hunter can work alongside standard manned craft with no dangers posed. All-weather capable, the vessel can also operate around-the-clock.
While Sea Hunter is wholly autonomous, ‘sparse’ background monitoring is always meant to be in place and, if needs be, naval personnel could assume remote control of it. Both scenarios would involve operating costs well below those of conventionally manned craft, DARPA explains.
“It will still be sailors who are deciding how, when and where to use this new capability and the technology that has made it possible", Littlefield comments. "And we could not have overcome the massive technical challenges to reaching this point without the creative, committed teamwork of our commercial partners and the Office of Naval Research.”
“This is an inflection point, this is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship”, adds US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Work. “I would like to see unmanned flotillas operating in the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf within five years.”
Sea Hunter images copyright/courtesy DARPA