Analysts with the firm Research and Markets have forecast six percent growth over five years in the market for autonomous naval vessels, driven by military expansion, the increasing use of off-the-shelf components and research spending by government agencies like America's DARPA.
American investment in the new technology is expected to account for about 40 percent of the market by the end of the study period. The firm forecasts that the leading contractors in the field will be Atlas Elektronik, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Raytheon.
Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems developed one of the earliest successful unmanned systems with its remotely-controlled, offense-capable Protector Unmanned Surface Vessel, first deployed with the Republic of Singapore Navy in 2005.
But more recently, competing heavyweights like General Dynamics have introduced fully autonomous models capable of operating without human interference for long periods, technologically surpassing earlier remotely-controlled models. The firm delivered the first of its Fleet-class 11-meter minesweeping craft in 2008, and the boats became the first autonomous vessels to receive U.S. Navy hull numbers. They are being procured as part of the Littoral Combat Ship mine countermeasures package and four have been delivered to date.
The U.S. Office of Naval Research has recently experimented with multiple “swarming” autonomous small craft capable of operating as a team to approach targets and defend high-value naval assets, without risk to American personnel.
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and defense contractor Leidos are currently building a much larger scale implementation of the concept, with a 130-foot carbon fiber trimaran built to trail ultra-quiet submarines, continuously, with no human navigation or conning. The first of the new vessels in the “ACTUV” program is presently under construction by Leidos at Vigor's Oregon Iron Works yard in Clackamas, Oregon, with first trials in 2016.
DARPA envisions the ACTUV platform as an economical way to track ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines, which are being procured by many nations – including China – in increasing numbers. The ACTUV trimaran would follow a target submarine while complying with surface COLREGS requirements and avoiding civilian vessels.
This may be the difficult part, and it would seem seafarers need not fear displacement by machines just yet. The ACTUV’s electronic hardware is complete, says DARPA, but its software is still being engineered. Scott Littlefield, program manager of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said that the system “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.”