Move over drones, driverless cars — unmanned ship up next

SAN DIEGO (AP) — It’s not only drones and driverless cars that may become the norm someday — ocean-faring ships might also run without captains or crews.

The Pentagon on May 2 showed off the world’s largest unmanned surface vessel, a self-driving 132-foot ship able to travel up to 10,000 nautical miles on its own to hunt for stealthy submarines and underwater mines.

The military’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in conjunction with the Navy will be testing the ship off the San Diego coast over the next two years to observe how it interacts with other vessels and avoids collisions. Unlike smaller, remote-controlled craft launched from ships, the so-called Sea Hunter is built to operate on its own.

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, said DARPA spokesman Jared B. Adams.

Besides military leaders, the commercial shipping industry will be watching the ship’s performance during the trial period. Maritime companies from Europe to Asia have been looking into developing fleets of unmanned ships to cut down on operating costs and get through areas plagued by pirates.

During the testing phase the ship will have human operators as a safety net. But once it proves to be reliable it will maneuver itself — able to go out at sea for months at a time. With its twin diesel engines it could go as far as Guam from San Diego on a mission.

Sea Hunter was built off the Oregon coast, and it moved on a barge to San Diego’s coastline. The prototype can travel at a speed of up to about 30 mph and is equipped with a variety of sensors and an advanced optical system to detect other ships.


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