Northrop unit to compete to design drone sub hunters in Annapolis

Someday soon, the U.S. Navy’s fleet could include unmanned submarine hunters, designed in Annapolis to track their prey for months.

Northrop Grumman Corp. was one of a half-dozen teams picked by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va., to work on the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, program. The goal is to create ships that do not need to be crewed and can find and track nearly silent foreign submarines that run on battery or diesel power.

“As new submarine classes achieve ever increasing levels of acoustic quieting and operational performance, tracking foreign submarines has become more difficult,” the agency said in a news release about the program.

Work on the $2 million contract will be carried out by Northrop Grumman’s Undersea Systems division in Annapolis, where a team will develop a concept, specifications and a manufacturing plan by the end of March for the ship.

“Our ACTUV solution will include a feasible vehicle that will be capable of quickly transitioning into an operational system — like the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, which flew in just 33 months,” Robert DuBeau, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s Undersea Systems business unit, said in a prepared statement. “With our extensive experience in undersea and surface systems, we are well positioned to advance the state of the art in USVs.”

Northrop has already developed unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Hunter and the Global Hawk. The company said it has provided more than 100,000 unmanned systems to military customers.

Other designs will come from teams including Science Applications International Corp.; Intelligence, Security, and Technology Group, based in Long Beach, Miss.; and Qinetiq North America Technology Solutions Group, based in Waltham, Mass.

Dubbed “ghost frigates” when the project was unveiled almost a year ago, the teams were not given size dimensions to work with for the ACTUV ships. One example the research projects agency gave was for a ship that was 62 feet long, 13 feet high above water level and a full load displacement of 157 tons. The ship should also be able to cover 1,864 miles while on patrol and have a maximum speed of 27 knots.

The ship’s main function will be to track and trail diesel and electric submarines that would otherwise eat up a significant amount of time and resources from manned vessels. The ACTUV prototypes will be designed to be unarmed, with only a battery of sensors and other electronics, but designers can allow space for the future addition of weapons.

The design cues also call for a ship capable of following safe navigation rules at sea and avoiding collisions with other seafaring vessels. The ACTUV will mark a new class of ocean-going unmanned surface vessels.