A new autonomous submarine-hunter

With the push for driverless vehicles in recent years, one might think that humans had a less than stellar history in the operation of cars, trucks, trains, buses, taxicabs, airplanes and boats.

The boat you see here is the newly christened Sea Hunter - formally known as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV.

Developed by the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and built by US defence contractor Leidos, the 132-foot-long, diesel-powered vessel is an experimental autonomous submarine-hunter and mine-detector, capable of cruising the open seas for weeks or months at a time, without human guidance of any sort, onboard or remote.

The name is a bit misleading; the unarmed Sea Hunter is more of an observer than a hunter. It is part of a plan to safeguard US carrier fleets in the Pacific and balance naval investments - particularly in new submarines - by China and Russia.

The ship's trimaran design bears a striking resemblance to a Polynesian outrigger canoe, with a slender composite hull stabilised by twin pontoons.

Making a trans-oceanic autonomous vessel - even one of the Sea Hunter's relatively modest size - is no small feat.

Not unlike the monumental task of making the Google Driverless Car comply with the rules of the road and interact successfully with other vehicles, Darpa's pilotless boat must meet standards for seagoing behaviour as set down by the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea - that is, it needs to act like a living, breathing helmsman, and adhere to maritime traffic rules as it shares the sea with human-helmed ships.

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