Robot Warship Demonstrates Advances
in Autonomy, Human-Machine Collaboration
By Cheryl Pellerin, DoD News, Defense Media
Portland, Oregon — (NNS)
— April 8, 2016 — Sea Hunter, a robot warship designed and built by the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency, 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 here yesterday.
DARPA technology demonstration vessel
Work spoke during a dockside ceremony just before DARPA Director Arati
Prabhakar christened the vessel Sea Hunter, a name that describes the planned
capabilities of the 130-foot twin-screw trimaran -- a boat with a main hull and
two smaller outrigger hulls.
“I've been waiting for this day for a long time,” Work told the audience.
“We are in a period of incredible technological flux. 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.
“This will be a change just like other momentous changes in our society,”
Work said. “You see this human-machine collaboration in our businesses and
manufacturing now, you see it in our daily lives, and you're going to see it
increasingly in warfare.”
Sea Hunter, a DARPA prototype of a new class of unmanned oceangoing vessel conducting
DARPA developed and built the technology-demonstration vessel through its
anti-submarine warfare continuous-trail unmanned vessel, or ACTUV, program. The
new class of oceangoing vessel can travel thousands of kilometers over open seas
for months at a time without crewmembers, but always with remote human
supervision, according to a DARPA news release about the ship.
Potential missions initially will include submarine tracking and countermine
activities, Prabhakar said during a media briefing after the ceremony.
Video Player | DARPA - Timelapse and Walkthrough
At-sea testing on a surrogate ship has shown that Sea Hunter’s autonomous
navigation software can operate the ship in compliance with maritime laws and
conventions for safe navigation, including the 1972 International Regulations
for Preventing Collisions at Sea published by the International Maritime
Organization to prevent collisions between two or more vessels, the release said.
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, according to the
“We've just gotten to the point where we can put this in the water and
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,” Prabhakar said.
The unmanned Demonstration Vessel sits in the water
in Portland, Oregon
“They might be very simple things before we get to … future [capabilities],”
the director added. “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.”
Testing the Prototype
To test the ACTUV prototype, DARPA signed a memorandum of agreement in
September 2014 with the Office of Naval Research to jointly fund an extended
test phase. DARPA officials said they will collaborate with ONR to fully test
the capabilities of the vessel and several payloads during open-water testing.
Testing is scheduled to begin this summer off the California coast after a
preliminary checkout and movement to San Diego. If it is successful, the program
could transition to the Navy by 2018, DARPA says.
During an interview on the way to Portland Wednesday, 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 about $15,000 to
$20,000 a day to operate, he added.
This is in contrast to the $600,000 cost to operate a manned helicopter for
24 hours, or $700,000 to operate a destroyer for the same amount of time, Work
“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.”
The ship also can be scaled up to handle heavy payloads, Work said, such as
After NRL has completed testing of Sea Hunter, Work said he wants to push the
Navy to turn the ship over to operators from the 3rd Fleet and the 7th Fleet to
see what they 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
The 132-foot ship is able to travel thousands of miles over
open seas for months at a time with no crew members aboard
Aleutian Islands and a sector of the Arctic. The 7th Fleet's area of
responsibility includes more than 52 million square miles of the Pacific and
Indian Oceans, from the International Date Line to the east coast of Africa, and
from the Kuril Islands in the north to the Antarctic in the south.
“We’ve made a lot of advances in unmanned aerial vehicles but we’re in the
walking stage for unmanned surface vessels except for those that operate in
general vicinity of a ship’s line of sight,” Work said.
“[Sea Hunter] is a ship that you just sit down over the horizon and it might
be able to do an awful lot of things that you don’t want a manned platform to
do,” the deputy secretary added, “especially in an area where there’s a lot of
anti-access, -area denial threats.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)
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Dr. Arati Prabhakar
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