Autonomous Navy vessel sails from San Diego to Hawaii and back


In a high-profile trial run in January, Sea Hunter, an unmanned surface vessel operated by the Office of Naval Research, navigated from San Diego to Pearl Harbor and back without a single crewmember on board.

Personnel from an escort vessel boarded Sea Hunter for short durations during the voyage to check electrical and propulsion systems, according to Leidos, the technology company that designed and built the ship. At 132 feet long, Sea Hunter is currently the world’s largest uncrewed vessel.

“The Sea Hunter program is leading the world in unmanned, fully autonomous naval ship design and production,” said Gerry Fasano, Leidos Defense Group president. “The recent long-range mission is the first of its kind and demonstrates to the U.S. Navy that autonomy technology is ready to move from the developmental and experimental stages to advanced mission testing.”

The Office of Naval Research, which conducted the test voyage, did not respond to requests for an interview. In the past, the ONR has declined to comment on the Sea Hunter program due to operational security concerns.

Launched in 2016, Sea Hunter is a trimaran capable of 27 knots. It completed its initial trials with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to prove that the vessel could handle communications relays and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor packages.

In 2017, three tests conducted with operationally realistic scenarios used the sensor suites to demonstrate compliance with International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). The sensors, navigation tools and automated lookouts allow Sea Hunter to safely sail near other ships regardless of weather or traffic conditions, day or night, according to DARPA. In 2018, the ONR took over the project to conduct security-sensitive research.

Sea Hunter was built by Vigor Industrial in Portland, Ore. The trimaran’s displacement fully loaded is 145 long tons, which includes 40 tons of fuel that can power the twin diesel engines for more than 10,000 nautical miles. Sea Hunter was designed to be fully operational through sea state 5 and “survivable” through sea state 7 with waves up to 30 feet high, according to DARPA. During testing, a removable control station was installed to allow manned operation if necessary. The vessel can patrol without human guidance using optical sensors and radar to avoid other watercraft or obstacles in the water.

The Navy hopes to uses autonomous vessels for “dull, dangerous and dirty missions,” Leidos officials said, including mine sweeping and hydrographic surveys.

Initially, Sea Hunter was designed to use a high-frequency fixed sonar array to locate, track and engage submarines. Additional testing included mine countermeasures.

Estimates for operating Sea Hunter range from $15,000 to $20,000 a day compared with $700,000 a day to operate a destroyer. Navy officials have said if weapons were added, a human would always make the decision to use lethal force.

Leidos, based in Reston, Va., is developing Sea Hunter II under terms of a $43.5 million contract awarded by the ONR in 2017. Sea Hunter was developed for $20 million under a DARPA contract.

By Professional Mariner Staff