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Navy’s drone ‘ghost ship’ completes unmanned 5,200-mile trip

Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned ocean-going vessel gets underway on the Williammette River following a christening ceremony in Portland, Ore. Part the of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)'s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program, in conjunction with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is working to fully test the capabilities of the vessel and several innovative payloads, with the goal of transitioning the technology to Navy operational use once fully proven. (John F. Williams/U.S. Navy)
February 05, 2019

The U.S. has made another major leap in autonomous technology with the latest completed test of an unmanned drone ship.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made another milestone with the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) prototype called “Sea Hunter,” which completed its first voyage between California and Hawaii without navigators or crew, The Drive reported Monday.

The 5,200-mile feat between San Diego and Pearl Harbor was first announced in a press release from Leidos, the defense contractor behind the Sea Hunter project

“The Sea Hunter program is leading the world in unmanned, fully autonomous naval ship design and production,” Gerry Fasano, Leidos Defense Group President, said in a press release. “The recent long-range mission is the first of its kind and demonstrates to the U.S. Navy that autonomy technology is ready to move from the developmental and experimental stages to advanced mission testing.”

A crew was aboard an escort ship throughout the Sea Hunter’s journey. They boarded the ship for short durations throughout to assess the electronics and propulsion systems.

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The 132-foot vessel is the first autonomous, unmanned vessel of its kind. It is capable of conducting long missions without needing a navigator or crew, which significantly reduces costs.

The ship began its sea trials in October 2016, then passed its three first major tests during February through September 2017.

Last year, DARPA transferred the program to The Office of Naval Research (ONR), according to a January 2018 press release.

“ACTUV’s move from DARPA to ONR marks a significant milestone in developing large-scale USV technology and autonomy capabilities,” said Alexander Walan, a program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO). “Our collaboration with ONR has brought closer to reality a future fleet in which both manned warships and capable, large unmanned vessels complement each other to accomplish diverse, evolving missions.”

“ACTUV represents a new vision of naval surface warfare that trades small numbers of very capable, high-value assets for large numbers of commoditized, simpler platforms that are more capable in the aggregate,” said Fred Kennedy, TTO Director. “The U.S. military has talked about the strategic importance of replacing ‘king’ and ‘queen’ pieces on the maritime chessboard with lots of ‘pawns,’ and ACTUV is a first step toward doing exactly that.”

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A second version of the Sea Hunter is under development in Mississippi, after Leidos won a $43.5 million contract for it.

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Neagley told Breaking Defense last month that the Sea Hunter will be used by the Navy primarily for “Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare” involving unmanned vessels equipped with sensors and electronic warfare systems, and performing scouting missions.

Information obtained from these ships would support manned vessels, providing them with data such as hostile threats and locations, while conducting radar jamming and other measures to confuse or blind enemy systems.