This afternoon, Deputy Defense Secretary and robotics booster Bob Work will christen the largest unmanned surface vessel in history. At 130 feet long and not quite 140 tons displacement, DARPA’s Sea Hunter dwarfs previous robotic boats, giving it the ruggedness and fuel capacity, about 70 days’ worth, to cross oceans on its own power without a manned mothership. But Sea Hunter, aka ACTUV, is still much smaller than the Navy’s smallest manned warship, the Cyclone-class coastal patrol boat — 179 feet and 380 tons — let alone a frigate or destroyer. At just over $20 million apiece, it is vastly cheaper than manned craft, too.
Sea Hunter‘s size and cost open an intriguing new niche in naval operations. Imagine swarms of small, inexpensive, and above all expendable unmanned craft scouting ahead of or escorting traditional task forces. If the roboats get blown up, it costs no lives and relatively little treasure. If the roboats survive, their sensors provide invaluable intelligence to the fleet, and intelligence can win wars.