DARPA awards contracts for autonomous ‘Sea Train’

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DARPA concept

 The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded contracts for its Sea Train program, which seeks to enable autonomous vessels to perform long-range transit operations.

In September, Applied Physical Sciences Corp., Gibbs & Cox Maritime Solutions and Mar Technologies were chosen for the program, which will include two 18-month phases.

The contract awards’ total potential values were $31.2 million, $30.4 million and $28.5 million, respectively. Through the effort, DARPA wants “to provide some operational flexibility for medium-sized unmanned surface vessels,” said Andrew Nuss, a program manager within the agency’s tactical technology office. Each company is “developing a unique approach to be able to address the goals of the Sea Train program.”

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Get on board the Sea Train

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DARPA’s Sea Train concept hopes to enable a convoy of medium-sized unmanned vessels to travel across the ocean without refueling, before splitting up to conduct independent operations. (Courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

Imagine the following scenario.

Four medium-sized U.S. Navy vessels depart from a port along the United States’ coast. There’s no crew aboard any of them.

About 15 nautical miles off the coast, the four vessels rendezvous, autonomously arranging themselves in a line. Using custom mechanisms, they attach to each other to form a train, except they’re in the water and there’s no railroad to guide them. In this configuration the vessels travel 6,500 nautical miles across the open ocean to Southeast Asia. But as they approach their destination, they disconnect, splitting up as each unmanned ship goes its own way to conduct independent operations, such as collecting data with a variety of onboard sensors.

Once those operations are complete, the four reunite, form a train and make the return journey home.

This is the Sea Train, and it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is investing in several technologies to make it a reality.

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