Self-Driving Navy Vessel Tows Parasail
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has found a new use for its unmanned semi-autonomous vessel, known as Sea Hunter (or ACTUV, its project acronym).
The agency says that Sea Hunter turns out to be a good complement for another DARPA device, an airborne comms package, which piggybacked on the 130-foot craft for a recent test deployment. The agency's Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems (or TALONS) is like a heavy-duty version of a recreational parasail, capable of lofting a tethered payload of 150 pounds to an altitude of 1,500 feet with the assistance of a vessel tow.
The two-day test saw the prototype parasail in operation for three hours at altitudes of up to 1,000 feet – the height equivalent of the Chrysler Building. When aloft, the system's sensor payload extended its radar range by a factor of six, doubled the range of its cameras and tripled the range of its VHF radio comms, DARPA said – a major improvement over the performance of ordinary mast-mounted equipment.
“We just started at-sea testing of ACTUV in June, and until now we've been focused on getting the basic ship systems to work," said Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager for ACTUV. "TALONS was our first chance to demonstrate hosting a real payload and showing the versatility of ACTUV to do a wide variety of missions for which it wasn't originally designed.”
DARPA did not give an estimate for the TALONS’ usable weather window, but the Parasail Safety Council cautions against recreational use in winds over 13 knots.
Sea Hunter is currently undergoing trials to evaluate the performance of its sensors, autonomous features, its ability to comply with COLREGS on its own and Navy tests related to warfighting applications. All testing is being carried out in San Diego, the home of the Fifth Fleet.
While the vessel has been operating in a manned configuration so far, DARPA and lead system contractor Leidos say that later tests will be done without a human pilot on board.