Manta Ray Program To Develop Large, Autonomous, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles Capable of Long Missions

DARPA recently awarded Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation and Martin Defense Group phase two contracts for the Manta Ray program. The Manta Ray program seeks to develop a series of autonomous, large-size, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) capable of long-duration missions and having large payload capacities. 

According to DARPA, UUVs that operate for extended durations without the need for logistic support or maintenance performed by humans offer the potential for persistent operations in forward environments. The UUVs will be required to be extremely self-sufficient in a difficult environment, with the ability to charge up their own batteries, and be able to sense, label, and avoid all manner of obstacles. They will also need to be highly corrosion-resistant to deal with the salt sea’s ability to corrode metal.

Phase one – which began in 2020 – involved the development of enabling technologies and subsystems for the future Manta Ray large UUV. The enabling technologies include: energy management for UUV operations; energy harvesting at submerged depths; low-power and high-efficiency propulsion; efficient navigation; mission management; command, control, and communications during long-duration deployments; low-power underwater detection and classification of hazards or counter detection threats; and techniques to mitigate biofouling, corrosion, and other material degradation.

Phase two will focus on systems integration, based on overall risk posture, maturity of critical subsystems, and technical performance. It should be finished by December of 2023. The third phase will involve early testing to reduce program risk, as well as integration testing of Manta Ray energy-management techniques.

“DARPA’s Manta Ray program has made significant breakthroughs toward enabling payload-capable autonomous underwater vehicles to operate independently of crewed vessels or support infrastructure,” stated CDR Kyle Woerner, Manta Ray’s program manager. “By investing in diverse solutions, DARPA strengthens our ability to transition innovative undersea technologies to our national security partners. Manta Ray is uniquely positioning itself to simultaneously introduce a new class of underwater vehicle while contributing key component technologies to other vital undersea programs.”