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DARPA’s Manta Ray drone for underwater military operations aces initial tests

In a nutshell: DARPA’s Manta Ray program is designed to develop a new generation of autonomous drones capable of operating underwater. The drone has finally been built after roughly four years, and Northrop Grumman recently tested the prototype off the coast of Southern California.

Under the Manta Ray program, US research agency DARPA aimed to develop a completely new class of uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs), drawing inspiration from the massive “winged” fish of the same name. Northrop Grumman, one of three contractors selected by DARPA, has now transformed the UUV concept into reality and recently tested its primary capabilities.

Initially, Northrop Grumman faced competition from Martin Defense Group and Metron, but the latter withdrew from the project in 2021. According to the official Manta Ray program website, the UUV drone has been designed to undertake long-duration, long-range missions in oceanic environments inaccessible to humans.

The completed Manta Ray drone encompasses all the essential features outlined in DARPA’s original vision, including the ability to carry payloads for various missions. Manta Ray operates autonomously without human intervention or on-site logistics and can anchor itself to the seafloor before entering an energy-saving, low-power operating mode.

The Manta Ray drone is modular and can be shipped in five different “standard” containers for assembly anywhere in the world. After several years of work on the project, Northrop Grumman finally assembled the Manta Ray prototype in the past few months. Now, the military contractor has announced that the UUV has passed its first in-water test.

The prototype was submerged in February and March 2024, with specific tests conducted to assess its at-sea hydrodynamic performance. Northrop Grumman engineers operated the UUV using all supported modes of propulsion and steering, including buoyancy, propellers, and control surfaces. The test was deemed successful.

The completion of the full-scale Manta Ray testing phase confirms that the new underwater vehicle is almost ready for real-world military operations, stated Kyle Woerner, the DARPA program manager for Manta Ray. The US Department of Defense, aiming to achieve “strategic surprise” in underwater conditions, will now seek engagement with the US Navy for a second testing phase.

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