A Talon bomb disposal robot brings out the ball for the first pitch at a spring training baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants as part of the Phoenix Navy Week. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Mickey Treigle/Released)
At the Defense Department nowadays, you’re starting to see robots everywhere.
They dispose of bombs, and throw out the occasional first pitch. They help Marines improve their target shooting. And, if they’re human-robot teams that entered last year’s DARPA Robotic Challenged Finals, they drive vehicles, use tools, open doors, climb stairs and do all sorts of other things. Now another robot — one designed and built by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — happens to be the very first robot warship.
The warship represents breakthroughs in autonomous navigation and human-machine collaboration that could change the nature of U.S. maritime operations, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said during a christening ceremony yesterday in Portland, Oregon. Work spoke during a dockside ceremony just before DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar christened the vessel Sea Hunter, a name that describes capabilities planned for the 130-foot twin-screw trimaran — a multihull boat with a main hull and two smaller outrigger hulls. The new class of ocean-going vessel can travel thousands of kilometers over open seas for months at a time without crewmembers but always with remote human supervision.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Work told the audience. “I’m on a ship that looks like a Klingon bird of prey. It’s haze gray. If you look up front at the pilot house you’ll notice big bolts. You can take that pilot house off and this ship can operate autonomously.”
The world and the department are in a period of incredible technological flux, the deputy secretary said.
“Advances in autonomy and in artificial intelligence and autonomous control systems and advanced computing and big data, and learning machines and intuitive graphic visualization tools, metamaterials, miniaturization — they’re leading us to a time of great human-machine collaboration,” he added.
DARPA developed and built the technology-demonstration vessel through its anti-submarine warfare continuous-trail unmanned vessel, or ACTUV, program. Potential missions initially will include submarine tracking and countermine activities, Prabhakar said during a briefing after the ceremony with local media representatives.
At-sea testing on a surrogate ship has shown that Sea Hunter’s autonomy suite can operate the ship in compliance with maritime laws and conventions for safe navigation, including the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or COLREGS, published by the International Maritime Organization to prevent collisions between two or more vessels.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the technology demonstration vessel it designed, developed and built through its anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel program, or ACTUV, on Feb. 17, 2016, in Portland, Ore. (Image courtesy of DARPA).
Sea Hunter follows these rules using advanced software and hardware that act as automated lookouts, allowing the ship to operate safely near manned maritime vessels in all weather and traffic conditions, day or night, DARPA says.
“Where we are today is just at the beginning of starting … experiments [with the warship],” Prabhakar said.
“We’ve just gotten to the point where we can put this in the water and [we] christened it and now for the next two years we’re going to be working really closely with the Navy to figure out what are those first few missions and how do you really make it work.”
She added, “They might be very simple things before we get to … future [capabilities]. They might be as simple as learning how to trail … a submarine that’s really quiet or clearing mines … and over time I think it can be fully transformative of maritime operations.”
To test the prototype autonomous warship, DARPA signed a memorandum of agreement in September 2014 with the Office of Naval Research to jointly fund an extended test phase. Testing will start this summer off the California coast after a preliminary checkout and movement to San Diego. If it’s successful, the program could transition to the Navy by 2018, DARPA says.
During an interview enroute to Portland yesterday, Work called the Sea Hunter and its capabilities an inflection point.
The “completely robotic ship” has a range of 10,000 nautical miles at 12 knots and the prototype cost $23 million to produce, the deputy secretary said.
After it’s been tested and multiple ships are produced it will cost $15,000 or $20,000 a day to operate, he added, noting that it costs $600,000 to operate a manned helicopter for 24 hours, and $700,000 to operate a destroyer for the same amount of time.
“If [Sea Hunter] can demonstrate its range, if we can validate its operating cost per day and prove that it’s safe to operate,” he said, “then to me it opens up a whole new vista of things that the Navy can do.”
During the ceremony Work said that he is “absolutely salivating to see what is going to happen when this baby gets down to the 3rd Fleet after ONR has checked it all out [and] made sure it’s safe, to see what our creative warfighters in the U.S. Navy can do with it.”
The 3rd Fleet’s area of responsibility includes 50 million square miles of eastern and northern Pacific Ocean areas including the Bering Sea, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and a sector of the Arctic.
“You can imagine anti-submarine warfare pickets, you can imagine anti-submarine warfare wolf packs, you can imagine mine warfare flotillas, you can imaging distributed anti-surface warfare action groups … and you might be able to put a six-pack or a four-pack of missiles on it,” the deputy secretary said.
“Now imagine 50 of these warships … operating together under the hands of a flotilla commander. This is really something,” Work told the audience.
When it begins using these new robot warships, he added, the U.S. Navy will “be a Navy unlike any Navy in history, [with] a human-machine collaborative battle fleet that will confound our enemies.”
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