DARPA launches Phase Two of Manta Ray UUV maritime drone project

Manta Ray UUV drone

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is getting creative with its drone development by awarding Phase Two contracts to produce uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUV) that hostile forces might well ignore as nothing more than manta rays. Because that’s just what they’re designed to look like.

DARPA originally launched the Manta Ray UUV project in 2020, but last week said it had signed deals with two defense companies to continue work on the aquatic drone. Teams from Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation and Martin Defense Group will work to develop full-scale demonstration versions of what until now have been conceptual and schematic computer-generated simulations. 

DARPA says Phase One of the Manta Ray program concluded with critical reviews that demonstrated conceptual and design viability, and the project’s overall readiness to proceed to the next development stage. As it does, Martin Defense and Northrop Grumman will work first on subsystem testing, followed by production and submarine demonstrations of completed UUVs – presumably something not dissimilar, in generally fishy security terms, to the Robo-Shark drone China unveiled this year.

By the end of Phase Two, the two contracting groups are expected to exhibit the operational capacities of the Manta Ray UUVs, whose main function will be to perform long-distance and -endurance aquatic missions. Being a national defense innovation unit as it is, DARPA has declined to offer a plethora of detail on the future maritime drone, other than to say its tech will allow for payload-capable autonomous ocean sorties.

A YouTube video DARPA uploaded titled “Manta Ray – Breaking the UUV mold” offers a tad more insight into what the UUV may be used for. As it cruises the ocean, the triangular vehicle stabilizes itself to allow a second drone to pop out of its back for apparent data collection and surveillance work. The smaller craft is tethered, presumably to facilitate transfer and storage of information in the host UUV, in which the mini-craft re-docks before the pair moves silently on. 

In announcing the extension of the project to Phase Two, Commander Kyle Woerner, manager of DARPA’s Manta Ray program, said equipping the relatively small UUV to take on a strategic payload was a major challenge the initial stage of the drone’s development overcame. So, too, was the capacity for that additional onboard tech to be adaptable to the requirements of different missions. 

“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,” Woerner explained. “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.” 

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