DARPA builds prototype unmanned underwater vehicle
DARPA, the US Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, awarded Phase 2 contracts to build and test unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) concepts in a project code named Manta Ray. The program aims to develop and demonstrate critical technologies for a new class of long-lasting, long-range and payload UUVs.
The goal of the program, which was announced in 2020, is to develop UUVs that operate in oceanic environments for extended periods of time without the need for human logistical support or on-site maintenance. Among the key technologies that DARPA says would be involved in the project are new energy management techniques, including energy harvesting at operational depths. The concept makes use of low-power, high-efficiency submarine propulsion systems as well as new means of underwater detection of dangers and potential threats. They also plan to address and develop new approaches to mitigate biofouling, corrosion and other degradation of materials that would affect long duration missions.
In March 2020, four companies were selected to conduct phase 1 of the program. They designed and carried out preliminary tests on the key elements of the project. This included new approaches to energy management, UUV reliability, biofouling and corrosion control, navigation, and underwater obstacle avoidance. The first phase of testing focused on areas that directly enable long endurance missions.
“DARPA’s Manta Ray program has made significant inroads in enabling autonomous underwater vehicles capable of payload to operate independently of manned vessels or supporting infrastructure,” said CDR Kyle Woerner, head of the Manta Ray program. “Manta Ray is uniquely positioned to simultaneously introduce a new class of underwater vehicles while bringing key component technologies to other vital underwater programs. “
The Manta Ray program completed Phase 1 with critical design reviews which, according to DARPA reports, demonstrated design maturity and readiness for project progress. In December, phase 2 contracts were awarded to two prime contractors, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation and Martin Defense Group.
In phase 2, both projects will develop unique large-scale demonstration vehicles. The selected companies will work on subsystem testing followed by the manufacturing and water demonstrations of large-scale integrated vehicles.
Manta Ray aims for three phases of development, culminating with a fully integrated demonstration vehicle accomplishing an underwater mission in a dynamic environment at sea.