Sea Drones in the Works

I guess it was inevitable. The Air Force has its Leer Jet-sized drones flying circles around the globe, taking snap shots of Iranian nuke plants, Chinese sub pens and Haitian wreckage.

So what about the Navy, huh?

Well a tipster sent us an interesting story the other day about a DARPA project looking into producing unmanned frigates to locate and shadow enemy subs.

The three main objectives of the program are to build an “X-ship” that operates without anyone stepping aboard at any point in its operating cycle, secondly to demonstrate the technical viability of the system under “sparse remote supervisory control”, and thirdly to demonstrate the anti-submarine capability of the vessel and its “novel suite of sensors”. The ACTUV is unlike other unmanned vessels in that it is designed for global, independent deployment for months at a time.

The so-called Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, would actively ping subs and do the laborious work of trailing them constantly, letting them know Uncle Sam is on their tail.

First, let’s consider the source. It’s DARPA after all, so we can’t really expect that this will ever happen. But what DARPA is good at (other than providing fodder for the first person shooter video game community) is to spur thinking an innovation and way outside the box areas. With the Navy continually downsizing and building ships that require fewer crew, why not begin looking into the idea of larger ships with computerized crew?

I’m no expert on anti-submarine warfare, but it seems to me both doable and foolish. Computers are doing most of the undersea sound analysis anyway, why not have a computerized ship doing the dull work of detecting and tracking tangos like a Predator might do. I also recognize that there’s a huge amount of interpretation needed in the detection and analysis of undersea target (all of which could be done at a distance, for sure) but I’m also nervous about a totally unmanned ship navigating shipping lanes and other waters without a man on board to take the wheel when the seas get rough.

One thing I do know, it wouldn’t make for a very good remake of The Hunt for Red October.

— Christian

  • Jeff

    Or in the very least how about remote controled ships… with the crews sitting cozy at a base?

    My main concern is what measures would be taken to prevent an enemy from boarding and snooping around? Are we talking 100% sealed ships without entrances or access?

    • Dave

      Since it’s unmanned, maybe it can be programmed to submerge or do a barrel roll or something when it thinks it’s being boarded by an unauthorized person.

  • stephen russell

    Good concept, but maint crew would need acess unless ship is in port or at mobile temp yard like those used in WW2.
    Must be atomic to run for years Or need fuel depots for refuelling.
    & again pirate boardings issue.
    Unless have electric decks ala Nemo Nautilus.

  • caffeine required

    Just one copyedit readthrough would be nice before sending these things off to the millions…

  • chrisram

    Surveillance and reconaissance platforms are all headed this direction. The ASW mission is particularly suited to be done by unamnned platforms. It is a long tedious process better handled by unmanned platforms and remove much of the stress from the operators. Additionally, removing crew from platforms reduces a lot of weight or makes room for additional payload/fuel.

    I’d say you’ll see a mix of unmanned air, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) and perhaps Unmanned Surafce Vessels all networked and sharing sensor and track data. They will be overseen by manned surveillance stations which will coordinate and guide the overall effort.

  • Rip

    Christian –
    That would be “Lear” not Leer, although if the UAS overflys a nudist camp then perhaps it could be characterized as a “Leer” jet.

  • DennisBuller

    I am unsure if they can build a ship that takes so little maintenance that it can patrol for months at a time without an on board crew.
    On the flip side, to build a ship without a crew, it would take a complex maintenance monitoring system. Which will make the ship more complex….
    I think they are trying to go to big to fast. They should try PT boat size boats that can be dropped off destroyers/cruisers and operate as remote sub/radar substations.
    They could use them to create an even more effective defensive ring around the carriers and to extend the eyes of the ships when on independent missions.
    Eventually they could add antiaircraft missiles / anti-ship missiles and remote gun. Have the same development curve as the predators, which started with just surveillance.
    Since the sea is relatively flat, control of the ships could be done with radio waves, and laser. Lased communications would be hard on the rolling sea, but cannot be jammed….

    • gsak

      Depends on if NAVSEA is involved in the construction process. :)

  • Jeff

    I think the main idea pushing this is that for all the complexity of robots, they are cheaper enough to be more cost effective than manned vehicles/ships/aircraft.

    I think they need to try and build this with manufacturing modularity, where they can build 5 or 6 variants for the common sections of the ship and have one portion that dictates function that’s a permenant feature. Then you could cheaply have duty squadrons, with a destoyer drone for anti-sub, a destroyer drone for air-defence… etc working in tandem to operate as mini-escort groups to carrier battlegroups, to extend the range of fleet defenses, and buying the additional time needed to react to swifter smaller moving threats. The next step would be a mothership scheme to coordinate the drones and conduct at sea repairs.

  • koakai

    Anyone remember the Sea Shadow?

    The DoN wouldn’t have to look very far for a prototype. The only question would be: what type of propulsion would it take for any ship to go months at a time without refueling? Certainly not Diesel, and can we realistically build a nuke powered vessel small enough to still be stealthy and not worry about being captured?

    Good idea, but I it’d be amazing to have the propulsion question answered first.

  • Nraddin

    Seems like unmanned at this point might be a little bit of a bridge to far. However Darpa isn’t looking for someone to build one today, they are looking for people to study what needs to be done before we can build one in the future. Darpa didn’t think anyone would build a self driving car you could buy tomorrow with the grand chalange but they did want people to start working on what needed to be done to build one.

    Having said all that, I suspect you could build a ship today that could do 99.9% of all functions and should need nothing more than a small crew for maintanace and pulling docking lines, and a small security team to keep them from being boarded. Many 25 people, down from 350+ on a cruser today. A custom built ship could carry more fuel, armor or ammo to the tune of thosands of tons without issue if you dropped the 14/15ths of the crew (32tons in people alone) their births, mess area, food stores, work spaces, etc.

  • eric

    Why not use remote controlled unmanned Orion's patrolling the sky in search of subs? Oh wait, than we don't need the navy anymore.

  • Brian

    I think there was a quote from Futurama where Zapp is addressing the acadamy graduating class…

    “Wars in the future will be fought by robots on land or at sea. Wars will be fought in space and possibly very high mountaintops. As graduates of this esteemed military academy, your job is to build and maintain those robots.”

    The future of military life.

    • TMB

      It was the Simpsons episode with Bart and Lisa at a military school.

  • Whiskey6

    Question: How will damage control be done if the Unmanned Big Grey Boat takes a hot or two?

  • gsak

    This isn’t going to be big. It’s going to be little, powered by some hybrid electric propulsion. Fuel cells and ultra capacitors… something like that.

    The only reason ships or boats are big, is because they need to hold people.

    • DualityOfMan

      Or launch (manned) airplanes.

  • roland

    How about a drone sub-ship? With the ability to cruise the world and destroy enemy sub and ship. And has the capability as a ship and sub at the same time. And can destroy a rougue/ evil enemy on land. With all wizzle and bizzles.

  • Kirk

    I remember a story I read a while back where mankind had built totally robotic armies. When it came time to fight armageddon and everything was laid waste, God came and took the robots to heaven to prove mans stupidity and arrogance.
    While I personally dont have a problem with robotic help, going to all robotic systems just makes it a big game to me. Oh, SkyNet anyone ?

  • Mark

    I respectfully remind anyone with contract or signature authority that before funding such an effort, that they take a carefull read of Dr. Kurt Goedel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorm’ and the corollary. Any Takers?

  • anthony

    Yep wars or disputes will be monitered from space as now.

  • ohwilleke

    If it is possible to have a modified frigate run unmanned, why do the ordinary variety take hundreds of crew members? Why can one retrofit an exist frigate to run with a skeleton crew?

    Why does it take a ship this big to tail a submarine? I would think one would need something in the hundreds of tons, not the thousands of tons, for this assignment. If the modified frigate was to carry a full suite of cruise missiles, three inch guns and torpedoes of the original, it might need to be that big, but it isn’t clear that the modified version is to have any major offensive armament.

    Why build a surface drone rather than a submarine drone for this mission? One of the problems with a drone is that it can be boarded.

  • DualityOfMan

    I thought this was going to be about drones launched from subs.
    Because of maintenance concerns, I doubt that unmanned ships will be here soon.
    The Soviet Alfa-class submarine had 30 crew and the 1990s Arsenal Ship proposal would have had 50 crew. That seems much more practical than unmanned ships.

    A possible exception would be small missile boats (like the Soviet Osa or the old American hydrofoil) that small and don’t go very far.

  • Valcan


    Ok first wheres my flying car. You know the thing i was saw on tv they said i would have by 1995.

    With large surface ships my veiw is pretty much they will never be unmanned. One is because people would rather have them in the loop. Another is do you really want to offer china a run at hacking into a 9 billion (which is how much they would cost at a minimum just for a frigate) dollar ship. Also theres the fact as others have pointed out maintanence. We are nowhere near what would be needed to fix all the problems that go wrong on a ship.

    However, I can see them being used in other area's. Such as sub detection. Have a ship could be a upgraded cargo ship really its job is to service, deploy, operate, and monitor up to 10 to 15 small unmanned submarines. These would come equiped with sonar that can operate as a group. Maybe even be able to deploy hundreds of sonar arrays that can sit on the ocean floor and monitor traffic sending up the signal if they spot a sub or possible warship.

    Ships will continue to get smaller crew (which i know why everyone wants but i disagree with it for multiple reasons). But as for entirely unmanned. I just dont see.