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The US Navy is expanding the capabilities of its emerging submarine hunting drone ship so that it can conduct surface warfare missions, fire weapons and launch electronic attacks.

The Navy wants to rapidly migrate the system from something that is tele-operated to something that can increasingly perform a wider range of functions without needing human intervention.

The Sea Hunter, a project of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), formerly known as ACTUV, can be controlled by a human operator able to maneuver the ship with a joystick. However, the progress of the platform’s technology and the rapid advancements of algorithms enabling greater levels of autonomy, have inspired the Navy to begin thinking about additional missions for a drone that was initially conceived as a purely sub hunting vessel.

According to defensesystems.com, the ship is built to travel up to 10,000 miles while using sonar and other sensors to locate mines and even the quietest enemy submarines.

The Sea Hunter’s high-frequency sonar can send acoustic “pings” into the ocean before analyzing the return signal to determine the shape, size, speed and characteristics of any undersea enemy activity.

The drone uses advanced hydro acoustics, pattern recognition and algorithms for unmanned navigation to locate and shadow diesel electric enemy submarines.

The plan is to track them, if necessary, over a period of months so they are compelled to stay away from strategically vital areas.

We are not yet at the point where we don’t have an operator supervising it, but future plans with the Sea Hunter call for replacing a turret on top of the drone with a range of sensors for ISR, surface-oriented technologies, weapons and electronic warfare systems, said Capt. Jon Rucker, program manager at the Surface Naval Association.

If the Sea Hunter is both more autonomous and armed with lethal weapons in the future, it will be engineered to align with current Pentagon doctrine which says any use of lethal force must hinge upon a human decision maker in the role of command and control.

The Pentagon’s research arm is also extending testing of its sub-hunting drone able to travel autonomously for up to 90 days using sensors and sonar technology to search for enemy submarines and other airborne and undersea threats such as mines.