US military readies drone submarine hunter

Warship is unmanned and – currently – unarmed

Video Early next year a 140-ton warship will slip from its Pacific berth and sail out to patrol US coastal waters for up to three months, all without a single sailor on board.

The Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) is a 132-foot ship packed with sensors designed to hunt down signals from diesel-electric submarines using active and passive sonar. It can be controlled via satellite by landlubbers in air-conditioned cubicles, but is also designed to operate autonomously for long periods.

Scott Littlefield, program manager of US military research boffins at DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, said that the ACTUV was a money-saving bit of military kit, costing $15,000 to $20,000 per day to run. By contrast, a destroyer packed with humans in need of sleep, food, and water costs $700,000 a day.

The drone ship will set sail for sea trials in January or February from its harbor in Oregon on a trip to San Diego to iron out the kinks in its systems. The autonomous navigation system underwent a successful 35-mile test in January aboard a 42-foot (13-metre) surrogate vessel, and the ACTUV will go out on a series of limited trials over the next two years.

Youtube Video

"Generally, we're there," Littlefield said, adding that the goal was to get a ship that "is about as reliable as a vessel operated by experienced mariners."

There are no plans to equip the ACTUV with weapons - yet. The ship is supposed to patrol certain zones, periodically springing forwards and then coasting to allow its sonar systems to work. If it detects a signal, and the human overseer confirms the spot, it alerts other surface ships and they can move in to see what the fuss is about.

But since the boat is basically a floating sensor platform, it can be adapted to many roles. Littlefield said scouting out minefields was one use the operators are exploring.

As the ACTUV won't need to carry a human crew and the supplies to keep them going, the ship can also be packed with more hardware and stay out for longer periods. While it's unarmed at the moment, the Pentagon may have other plans in future if it proves reliable. ®

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