The United States Navy’s researchers have just been handed a working prototype of a self-driving sea drone made to stalk submarines, which could be the first of a new class of ships.
The Sea Hunter vessel will be the basis for ships of the future, which can sail for thousands of miles and stay at sea for months at a time without a single crew member on board. The project began in 2014 and the vessel got its name two years ago, inspired by the mission it will potentially have to carry out—hunting foreign submarines and other clandestine assets at sea.
The vessel officially passed a milestone on Thursday as its manufacturer, proving that it could drive itself and finishing testing by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). After two years of testing, which were hailed as a success, DARPA handed it to the Navy’s own research office.
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The vessel comes at a relatively cheap $20 million prospective price tag and takes only around $20,000 a day to run. This figure is less expensive than a crew-run ship and also nixes potential personnel risks when navigating dangerous missions, such as navigating a minefield.
Hailing the Sea Hunter as a “revolutionary prototype vehicle,” DARPA confirmed in a statement that the Office of Naval Research would develop it from now on. There is no set deadline for when the vessel will join naval operations but according to DARPA’s statement this could happen later this year. Without firepower onboard, the Sea Hunter is currently a surveillance vehicle. Its tests so far have revolved around how easily and autonomously the vessel can maneuver its 132-foot-long body, accelerate to speeds nearing 27 knots, and using use radar and cameras to spot other vessels.
In 2016, former deputy defense secretary Robert Work assured that, should weapons ever be mounted on the vessel, they would be operated by personnel and not the ship’s robotics.
“There’s no reason to be afraid of a ship like this,” Work told reporters at the naming ceremony of the vessel, Reuters reported.
The head of the U.S. Army recently stressed that the military must soon look to start producing vehicles that can operate both with personnel on board and “have the capability to go robotic.”