The United States Navy’s unmanned ship “Sea Hunter” made a public appearance on Monday, May 2, at a maritime terminal in the heart of San Diego’s shipbuilding district. Television crews filmed the robotic, self-driving 132-foot ship able to travel up to 10,000 nautical miles on its own to hunt for submarines and underwater mines.
According to ABC News, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) spokesman Jared B Adams explained to reporters how the world’s largest unmanned surface vessel was not a “joystick ship.” Posing in front of the futuristic vessel for cameras, Adams went through details of the naval operation off San Diego’s coast over the next two years, testing the robotic craft’s interaction with other ships and collision avoidance capability.
“Sea Hunter relies on radar, sonar, cameras and a global positioning system. Unmanned ships will supplement missions to help keep service members out of harm’s way.”
The U.S. Navy’s unmanned prototype will have human operators as a precautionary measure during the test phase. Once proven reliable, the robotic craft will maneuver itself out to sea and stay there for months at a time as a warship, though there are currently no plans to arm it. With its twin diesel engines, the ship could be sent on a mission as far away as Guam from San Diego.
According to 89.3 KPCC, speculation in terms of commercial application dwells on whether the Navy’s unmanned ship is safe enough. Program manager Scott Littlefield addressed the question.
“There are a lot of advantages that we’re still trying to learn about.”
Littlefield added that there will be no “remote-controlled driving” of the Navy’s unmanned ship. Instead, he said, mission-level commands will direct it where to go and what to accomplish, until the software kicks in, enabling it to drive safely on its own.
There is dissension in the ranks of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, about the seaworthiness of the Navy’s unmanned ship. Members of the union, which represents more than half of the world’s more than 1 million seafarers, insist that technology will never replace the human ability to foresee and react to the challenges of a sea voyage.
According to UPI, DARPA and defense technology firm Leidos are spearheading the development of the Navy’s unmanned ship. During its earlier Portland trial, the vessel was able to reach a top speed of 27 knots, or 31 miles per hour.
DARPA officials said that the Navy’s unmanned ship does not just answer one of the biggest challenges the Navy faces today, but also represents an entirely new class of unmanned vessel with vast possibilities for the future. Having been christened into the U.S. Navy fleet on April 7, in Portland, Oregon, the prototype is ready for an extended round of open-water testing in the Pacific, off the California coast.
The U.S. Navy’s interest in the unmanned ship’s development lies in its main mission, which is to find and track diesel-electric submarines. Low cost combined with a quiet engine gives the prototype an advantage over warships in Russia and Iran. With Tehran claiming to have 17 diesel-electric submarines as part of its maritime arsenal, DARPA officials underscore the timeliness of the program.
“The program has designed, developed and constructed an entirely new class of ocean-going vessel — one intended to traverse thousands of kilometers over the open seas for months at a time, all without a single crew member aboard.”
Aside from its military application, the Navy’s novel craft has sparked interest in the commercial shipping industry, which is following the trial phase. Maritime companies from Europe to Asia see the unmanned ship as a way to minimize operating costs, especially in pirate-infested waters.
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