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Pentagon taps SAIC to build unmanned submarine-spying sea vessel

Science Applications International Corp. won a $58 million prime contract from the Pentagon to develop an unmanned sea vessel that spies on enemy submarines while operating with minimal supervision, the defense contractor announced.

The autonomous surface vessel will be able track a diesel-electric submarine for months over thousands of kilometers, the company said. It was funded out of a military venture capital arm initiative called the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel  program. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency experiment aims to create a new maritime drone that can operate with “sparse remote supervisory control,” contract databases reveal.

New autonomous capabilities could expand the use unmanned surface vessel systems at sea.  “Current unmanned surface vessel systems and concepts are operated as close adjuncts to conventional manned ships -- they are launched and recovered from manned ships, tele-operated from manned ships and are limited to direct support of manned ship missions,” a December 2011 solicitation document reads.

The technology, if successfully developed, could allow surveillance missions to be carried out with less effort, needing a shore-based operator just “intermittently monitoring autonomous performance.” One challenge DARPA-funded scientists will have to address would be building a machine that can navigate the seas safely without colliding into other ships, a tender indicates.

SAIC’s three-year contract would involve the design and construction of a prototype. SAIC was also funded in an earlier phase of the initiative to draw up a blueprint.

Oregon Iron Works and Christensen Shipyards have been slated for partners in ship design, construction and propulsion, according to the SAIC statement. Carnegie Mellon University was tapped to develop vehicle’s autonomous capabilities, with National Robotics Engineering Center’s Senior Systems Scientist Brett Browning and Associate Director of Operations Pete Rander serving as key investigators, the university said in a statement. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab was also picked to team up with SAIC.

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