US self-piloting ship christened by DARPA
Written by: Laurence Doe | Published:

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has christened a self-piloting ship. The demonstration vessel was developed and built through the US agency’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) programme.

The ACTUV is a “breakthrough in autonomous navigational capabilities”, states DARPA, as it has the potential to change the nature of US maritime operations. At-sea testing on a surrogate vessel has shown ACTUV’s autonomy suite is capable of operating the ship in compliance with maritime laws and conventions for safe navigation—including International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. ACTUV accomplishes this through advanced software and hardware that serve as automated lookouts, enabling the ship to operate safely near manned maritime vessels in all weather, traffic conditions and at day or night.

ACTUV is designed to normally operate under sparse remote supervisory control but can also serve as a remotely piloted vessel if the mission or specific circumstances require it. It can operate at a fraction of the cost of manned vessels deployed for similar missions.

Potential missions for the 130-foot twin-screw trimaran, christened Sea Hunter, include submarine tracking and countermine activities. Taking place in Portland, Oregon, the event marks the vessel’s formal transition from a DARPA-led design and construction project to a new stage of open-water testing to be conducted jointly with the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

ACTUV is designed for enhanced stability in all kinds of weather. As it does not need to accommodate a permanent crew, its interior spaces are designed only with accessibility for maintenance in mind.

“Although ACTUV will sail unmanned, its story is entirely about people,” said Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager. “It will still be sailors who are deciding how, when and where to use this new capability and the technology that has made it possible. And we could not have overcome the massive technical challenges to reaching this point without the creative, committed teamwork of our commercial partners and the Office of Naval Research.”

In September 2014, DARPA signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Office of Naval Research to jointly fund an extended test phase of an ACTUV prototype. DARPA will collaborate with ONR to fully test the capabilities of the vessel and several innovative payloads during open-water testing scheduled to begin this summer off the California coast after preliminary checkout and movement to San Diego. Pending the results of those tests, the program could transition to the US Navy by 2018.

“The Memorandum of Agreement is just one example of the strong relationship that exists between DARPA and the Office of Naval Research, where we are working together on a number of important projects,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, which oversees ACTUV. “We look forward to strengthening and extending the relationship with ONR as we start testing ACTUV in San Diego later this spring and work jointly toward providing pivotal new capabilities for the Navy.”

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