DARPA Launching 132-Foot Drone Ship

Like the Terminator, if Sarah Conner were a submarine.

DARPA Drone SHio
DARPA Artist's Concept

Between unmanned fighter drones, self-driving cars and the terrifying quadrupedal robot known as Big Dog, humans have basically turned over control of the land and sky to our machine overlords in advance. But the sea, in all her cold, turbulent majesty, is still mankind’s domain—a place where we can hide from Skynet once it rises from the digital protoplasm.

Well, at least until April 7.

Because on that day, DARPA is expected to christen a 132-foot long drone ship that can not only sail itself, but will be tailor-made to hunt down the submarines that were the last hope of safety for the human resistance leadership. Sorry, Michael Ironside.

The Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or “ACTUV” (we’ll get to the weird acronym at the end), is made to test the theory that a ship unburdened by sailors can hunt down diesel-electric submarines as well as (or better than) a manned ship. A vessel designed to operate without people, DARPA suggests, might be able to stay on patrol for months at a time under minimal supervision, all at a fraction of the cost of manned ships. By cutting the crew down to zero, DARPA estimates the ACTUV will cost around $15–20,000 per day to run, as opposed to the roughly $700,000 per day it costs to run a manned destroyer.

While not as sexy as their larger, faster nuclear-powered siblings, diesel-electric submarines are one of the U.S. Navy’s more worrisome threats. Chinese, French and Canadian boats have all managed to sneak up on American aircraft carriers in recent years, sometimes getting close enough to snap pictures without being detected—in other words, within torpedo range. Being able to task unmanned boats with hunting them down would free up other, manned vessels for less mind-numbing tasks.

The ACTUV isn’t the Navy’s first time playing around with autonomous boats—they’ve toyed with the idea of using swarms of unmanned smaller craft to protect larger vessels from USS Cole-style attacks, and Virginia-Class submarines use autonomous undersea vehicles—but the submarine Terminator is their biggest ship yet to go entirely without a human crew.

Oh, and as for that name? Well, DARPA consolidates “Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel” down to “ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel,” then acronymize that down to “ACTUV.” Which, for the record, is pronounced “active.” And we thought “TERN” was a bridge too far.