The US Navy has launched trials of the world’s largest unmanned ship that could usher in the era of autonomous maritime transportation.
The trials, to be conducted off the coast of California, the USA, will test the ability of the 40m long Sea Hunter vessel to autonomously avoid other naval traffic.
During the tests, a human crew will be present aboard. However, it will not interfere into the handling of the ship.
"For our military operations we want to make sure we have unmanned vessels like this to supplement the human mission so that we're not putting people unduly in harm's way," said Jared Adams, the spokesman of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which developed the vessel together with Virginia-based defence company Leidos.
The diesel-powered UAV has been put on display in San Diego, California, ahead of the start of the trials. However, journalists were not allowed to enter the interior of the ship.
The ship, originally built to detect stealthy diesel electric submarines, could travel autonomously for up to six months without a single crew member aboard, covering up to 10,000 nautical miles.
During the trials, the ship will be given its mission-level commands telling it where to go and what to accomplish and then software will enable it to drive itself safely. The trials will last for at least to years.
In future, such technology could revolutionise maritime cargo transportation but also threaten the sailors’ profession.
The International Transport Workers' Federation, the union representing more than half of the world's one million-plus seafarers, has said it does not believe technology will ever be able to replace the ability of humans to foresee and react to the various dangers at sea.
Other experts expressed concerns about the risk of cyber-attacks. Essentially, skilful hackers might be able to hijack the autonomous ships. Military projects to provide high-level cyber protection to the autonomous ships are already underway.
The development of the Sea Hunter cost $120m (£82m) but Darpa said every subsequent ship could be produced for about £20m.
The prototype can travel at speeds of up to 30mph and is equipped with a variety of sensors and an advanced optical system to detect other ships. In future, the designers foresee the autonomous capabilities being expanded. For example, the ship could be used to detect mines.
The US Navy has experimented over the years with a number of unmanned systems, from drone helicopters to small, remotely-controlled boats launched from ships.
The Pentagon's budget over the next five years calls for investing in more high-end naval ships, including $600m to be invested in unmanned undersea vehicles.