'Sea Hunter,' the US Navy's first autonomous warship, sounds friendly enough

Automation is the new name of the US military's game

Sea Hunter

You may associate "drone warfare" with that iconic (albeit terrifying) Predator drone, but the United States (US) Navy has a new sea-faring drone: the Sea Hunter. And it's autonomous to the point of dealing with threats in the world's oceans independently.

The US Navy christened the … what I'll call a self-driving ship (that makes it sound more friendly, right?) on a harbor in Portland, Oregon – all 132 feet (40 meters) of it, and dubbed it an "inflection point."

"This is the first time we've ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship," Deputy US Defense Secretary Robert Work told Reuters, adding that he hopes to see veritable flotillas of automated warships in the western Pacific in as few as five years.

The name convention is still a toss up, but technically, to the vessel's creator, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is known as an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), or an ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel for short. Right, short.

An increasingly aggressive stance on autonomy

The release of Sea Hunter is a major expansion of the US military's clear plans to increase the presence of automated weaponry, with more and more autonomy, within its forces on all fronts.

This Sea Hunter cost the military a cool $20 million (about £14.2 million, AU$26.5 million) to develop and will require $15,000 to $20,000 daily in operating costs, which is surprisingly much lower than the upkeep of a manned vessel.

That twenty grand a day will power two diesel engines that can push the drone ship at speeds of up to 27 knots, which is not the fastest by a long shot – about 31 miles per hour on land. But what the military cares about more are the recurring and potential costs.

Now, while the Sea Hunter has the capability of "autonomous interactions with an intelligent adversary," according to DARPA's brief on the machine, it is not currently armed. However, Work has made clear that positioning weapons on the Sea Hunter has not been ruled out, Reuters reports.

That said, the outlet also reports that Work stressed that, if the Sea Hunter were someday armed, any decision to fire those weapons would be made by humans remotely. "There's no reason to be afraid of a ship like this," Work told Reuters and other reporters at the ceremony.

Work also mentioned to reporters that he would like to see Sea Hunter deployed to the US Navy's Japan-based 7th Fleet for further testing. Considering that North Korea has spurred tension in South Korea and Japan over the past decade with its increasingly frequent reports of nuclear and missiles testing, that makes a lot of sense.

The ship can travel for up to months at a time without much, if any, input from remote pilots.

The news follows recent reports of autonomous ships on the verge of invading other fields, namely shipping, with Korea's Advanced Institute of Science and Technology having been researching naval autonomy for some time, participating in the US Office of Naval Research's design competitions.

Regardless of your stance on automation much less in warfare, it's obvious that one of the final, logical steps in technology is happening right now, before our eyes – and the implications couldn't be more earth-shattering both literally and figuratively.

  • But, hey, let's talk about happy drones!

Via The Verge

Image Credit: DARPA

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