DARPA's Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program has designed a new ocean-going vessel that will be christened April 7. (YouTube/DARPA)

As the Pentagon prepares to face enemies ranging from rival nations to drug smugglers, it’s introducing something new: A 130-foot drone sea craft that could hunt for submarines and mines at sea.

Senior defense officials christened Thursday a 130-foot unmanned trimaran in Portland, Ore. The oddly shaped ship is called Sea Hunter and is the centerpiece of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The christening marks a new step for the program, which enters testing this summer off the coast of San Diego and is managed jointly with the Office of Naval Research. If all goes well, the vessel could become part of the Navy in 2018, defense officials said.

The ship’s allure is in its independence. The Pentagon envisions it being able to travel thousands of miles at a time on its own, undertaking missions up to a month long with minimal interaction with humans. Defense officials say it is able to avoid crashing into other ships through advanced software and hardware that form automated “lookouts.” It will be required to meet International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, known in the maritime world as COLREGS.

The ship also can be operated remotely, similar to other drones in the Pentagon’s fleet of unmanned aircraft, ships and submarines. They also could eventually be operated in fleets, giving the Defense Department an inexpensive way to boost maritime security.

The Sea Hunter test vessel was built by Leidos, a defense and engineering company with headquarters in Reston, Va. It announced last year that a smaller, 42-foot prototype had completed its first self-guided voyage between Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss. The Sea Hunter was built in Oregon and completed early testing there in the Columbia River.


An artist’s rendering of how the Sea Hunter could work. (Courteys of DARPA)

The unmanned Sea Hunter vessel during testing. (Still image from DARPA video)