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SYFY WIRE Submarines

DARPA awards contracts for sleek new unmanned Manta Ray robo-subs

By Jeff Spry

Only Aquaman's nemesis Black Manta cruises the Seven Seas in a cooler submersible than this proposed unmanned underwater drone being developed by the U.S. military's high-tech experimental think tank, DARPA

The Department of Defense's emerging technologies laboratory always has some secret machine, device, or vehicle being cooked up and kept under wraps somewhere in the world, and now they've awarded three contracts to assist in the design and manufacture of a stealthy new spy sub under the sci-fi sounding name of the Manta Ray Program.

This watery project to create a long-duration, unmanned, underwater vehicle hopes to build a number of autonomous submarines this decade that require minimal maintenance or in-person logistical support during months-long undersea deployments. To further the program along, DARPA bestowed lucrative contracts earlier this month to Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation, and Navatek, LLC.


"The Manta Ray program aims to increase at-sea operational capacity and capabilities for the combatant commander while minimizing disruptions to current operations by remaining independent of crewed vessels and ports once deployed," Commander Kyle Woerner, program manager for the Manta Ray Project said in an official statement. "If successful, this new class of UUVs would allow operational flexibility and relief of workload for both traditional host ships and servicing ports."

Besides admiring the proposed streamlined shape seen in the artist's rendering just above, there are many trickle-down benefits that can be derived from this beautiful multi-million dollar bathtub toy. Proponents of the extensive program say it aims to not only identify energy management methods for unmanned undersea operations, but also works out a number of engineering and electronic monitoring obstacles. 

These goals include developing efficient, low-power undersea propulsion systems; solving low-power underwater detection and classification of hazards and counter-detection threats; the sorting out of management approaches for extended missions while accounting for the mercurial nature of maritime environments; and discovering smarter approaches to limit biofouling (fouling of pipes by barnacles or algae), corrosion, and other natural degradations encountered during extended deployments.

The Manta Ray's birth is divided into three phases of development, ending with a fully integrated demonstration prototype launched on an underwater mission in an open-ocean environment by January of 2021. Black Manta, beware!