During the next two years, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will perform open-water testing of an unmanned surface vessel at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego. The 132-foot twin-screw trimaran, named the Sea Hunter, is designed to travel thousands of miles over the open seas for months at a time without any crew members on board. The robotic, autonomous ship – the first in a new class of ocean-going vessels – features a composite hull and foam core with GFRP skin.
“Several navies, including ours, have experimented with smaller unmanned surface vehicles,” says Scott Littlefield, program manager in DARPA’s tactical technology office. “The difference here is two-fold: One is the size of the vessel, which allows it to go greater distances directly from a pier and not be launched from another ship. The second is the high level of autonomy we are striving for.”
The Sea Hunter was developed under DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel program in conjunction with the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The vessel was built to perform a submarine track-and-trail mission. But because it’s larger than other unmanned vehicles and can carry a greater payload, other possible missions exist. “One thing we are working on in the near-term with the Office of Naval Research is an advanced minesweeping system that incorporates technology developed by the ONR,” says Littlefield. That system will be tested in 2017.
Leidos served as the prime contractor on the Sea Hunter, which was constructed in Portland, Ore., and underwent builder’s trials on the Willamette River. It then traveled south via barge to Point Loma on a three-day journey, arriving at the naval base on May 2. The ocean trials will include basic testing of the mechanical and electrical systems as well as collision avoidance testing.
“The principle thing we’ve been working on in the DARPA program is the ability to obey the rules of the road at sea autonomously,” says Littlefield. “The goal is to not just have a remote-controlled boat, but a vessel that can avoid collisions with other ships and behave appropriately on the high seas just as if it were being steered by a human mariner.” DARPA and the ONR will experiment with Navy-relevant payloads and examine how the Sea Hunter interacts with larger cruise vessels. During early testing, the vessel will be operated from a shore control system on the pier. Later testing may simulate usage in a fleet, with the Sea Hunter being operated from shore while it transits out to meet a battle group, then control shifting to one of the ships in the fleet.