DARPA's new unmanned surface vessel
DARPA developed a new autonomous vessel, christened Sea Hunter, that can stalk submarines and lay mines for U.S. Navy.Official DARPA Twitter page

The newest autonomous vessel, Sea Hunter, from the United States' (U.S.) Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could bring a sea change in the way the country carries out its maritime operations. The new vessel was christened April 7 and is an Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), developed as part of the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) ACTUV programme, DARPA said in a post on its website.

The Sea Hunter stands out among other vessels with its twin-screw trimaran in contrast to the monohull design that is normally seen. It can reportedly withstand all kinds of weather without any crewmen to physically steer it. The boat is 130 feet wide and can do more than just submarine-hunting. DARPA said its potential missions could include submarine-tracking and countermine activities.

This technology demonstrator vessel consists of an autonomy suite that allows the ship to operate according to the maritime laws and standards of safe navigation, said DARPA, adding that its advanced software and hardware allows the vessel to operate near manned maritime vessels. This ACTUV can operate in all weather, all traffic conditions and in day or night.

The vessel can change its role considering the mission objective from a remote supervisory control to remotely piloted vehicle. It is cheaper when compared with a manned vessel in deployment with similar mission, operating at half its cost.

Sea Hunter is expected to move into its next phase with open-water testing conducted Summer 2016 where "several innovative payloads" capabilities would be tested in collaboration with Office of Naval Research.

Though the vessel is autonomous, Scott Littlefield, DARPA programme manager, stressed the importance of sailors who remotely navigate it. "Although ACTUV will sail unmanned, its story is entirely about people. It will still be Sailors who are deciding how, when and where to use this new capability and the technology that has made it possible," he said in a statement.

Following the requisite tests for another two years and then based on its results, the vessel could transition to the U.S. Navy by 2018.

The U.S. investments in robotic warfare are reportedly part of the strategy to counter the Chinese naval ventures in South China Sea and the similar Russian ambitions elsewhere. Though U.S. aircraft-carrier battle groups and submarines have the ability to wield enough power, the expanding nature of China's submarine fleet has caused concern over the vulnerability of U.S. manned vessels.

"We're not working on anti-submarine (technology) just because we think it's cool. We're working on it because we're deeply concerned about the advancements that China and Russia are making in this space," Reuters quoted Peter Singer, an expert on robotic warfare at the New America Foundation think tank, as saying.

Robert Work, deputy U.S. defence secretary, has reportedly predicted the Sea Hunters could someday be armed with weapons, but that decision would be taken by humans.

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