DARPA Launches Autonomous Sub Tracker
On March 30, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released video footage of its new unmanned sub tracking vessel, dubbed Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV).
The 130-foot, carbon fiber craft was launched recently in Portland, Oregon, and DARPA says that she has already conducted speed tests to 27 knots in protected waters. She will be christened in a ceremony on April 7 and will begin open-water testing this summer off the coast of California.
The imagery of the prototype is the first to be publicly released.
DARPA and defense contractor Leidos began construction of the vessel in 2014. She is intended to operate with no crew aboard and no human navigation or control, and will be tasked with constantly following behind the latest generation of ultra-quiet submarines, which are being procured in increasing numbers by many nations, including China. She would follow a target submarine while complying with all surface COLREGS requirements, avoiding civilian traffic and obeying the Rules of the Road.
Scott Littlefield, program manager of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said last year that the system's navigation software “generally meets expectations.” But he added that his team's real challenge over the next few years of testing will be to create an autonomous ship that “is about as reliable as a vessel operated by experienced mariners.”
In the future, the platform could be considered for multiple missions, including mine countermeasures.
Multiple civilian and defense groups are working towards self-navigating, autonomous vessels, with applications from force protection to container shipping to spill response. Some suggest the elimination of human factors in navigation and operations offers benefits in safety and cost - with fewer crew, there are fewer aboard to suffer loss of life or injury in a casualty, fewer opportunities for human error, and fewer on payroll - but as in the debate over self-driving cars, others warn that there is potential for harm if change proceeds too quickly.