A Skeptical Engineer
The Sea Hunter

Enter the Sea Hunter: The Next Step in Unmanned Weapons Platforms

DARPA's new high-tech Naval ship will feature a high degree of autonomy.

Darpa recently revealed its latest high-tech wizardry, the Sea Hunter—an unmanned naval ship built by Vigor Industrial—when it turned the vessel over to the Naval Research Organization in the middle of its two-year evaluation.

The $20 million ship measures 132 ft long, it carries two diesel engines that let it travel at up to 27 knots, and its most distinguishing features are the twin outriggers on either side of the hull. It displaces about 140 tons, 40 of which are fuel enough for a 70-day mission. It also has plenty of space and available electrical power to carry a variety of weapons or sensors.

Currently it is officially stated that there are no weapons aboard, and the mission most often touted for it is to find and track enemy submarines. So the outriggers might carry acoustic and electromagnetic sensors that detect submarines, and placing them outside and away from the hull could isolate them from interference from the ship as it moves through the water. They could also be simply for stability, as the ship is quite narrow.

The ship can autonomously follow the International Maritime Organization’s Collision Regulations for safe navigation and travel, something that can’t necessarily be said of all U.S. Navy crews. But it was never programmed to recognize common bells, whistles, and other ship-to-ship communications. Darpa has tested the capability of automating these capabilities and has plans to make those upgrades in the future.

The ship will also have a high degree of autonomy, according to the agency. It is hoped the ship will be able to carry out complicated missions under “sparse supervisory control.” Translation: “There will still be a human in control at all times, but not steering the ship around.” But does this mean you need foolproof communications with the ship, or will it go dead in the water if comms are lost?

Eliminating sailors from the ship will certainly save money. It is estimated the ship will cost only $15k to $20K per day to run. No wages or pensions or VA care to worry about. There will also be no need for crew quarters, galleys, dispensaries, food storage, and a host of other spaces that add all add costs and compromises. Safety will also not be as great a concern for designers of future unmanned ships (if this one succeeds). So there’s no need for lifeboats, breathing equipment in case of fires, or personal floatation devices in case of catastrophes. Designers were also told to eliminate traditional controls, so even if pirates boarded the Sea Hunter, they could not steer or control it.

A major concern of mine is maintenance. Can the Navy launch a ship that will survive out on the ocean for two months with no repairs or scheduled maintenance?

It will be an interesting experiment into unmanned ships, and the shipping industry will be paying attention. But I wonder if the Navy will ever arm such ships with weapons of mass destruction. That sounds like the recipe for a bad movie.

What’s your take on the idea?

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