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 Defense 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. Moreover, the ship needs to be adept at what Darpa calls "autonomous interactions with an intelligent adversary" — that is, it needs to be able to save its hide in a hostile situation.

Launched in the US state of Oregon, in a ceremony that included Darpa director Arati Prabhakar breaking a (nonalcoholic) "champagne" bottle over the bow, the Sea Hunter is scheduled to head south to San Diego, California, where it will embark on a two-year open-water test phase of its autonomous systems. The vessel presently carries a removable windowed pilothouse, where a human crew member will monitor operation and serve as a safety backup during the test period.

In addition to trailing sensors for tracking submarines, the Sea Hunter uses radar and sonar systems to manage its position and avoid obstacles, and an automatic ship identification system to keep track of other vessels in radio range. No surprise, Darpa promises the unmanned ship — which in final form will cost an estimated $20m — will be notably less expensive to operate than a comparable crewed vessel, with a daily running cost of between $15,000 and $20,000.

And unlike a crew of sailors, ACTUV will never request shore leave.

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