U.S. Military Shows Off Its Manta Ray Robot. It’s Huge, Autonomous and Ready for Long Underwater Missions

  • This autonomous underwater drone is intended for long-term ocean missions.

  • It’s equipped with a low-power mode that anchors itself to the seabed.

Manta Ray
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The current military scenario may seem like something out of a fictional movie or video game. U.S. officials claim that China and Russia are attacking their satellites on a daily basis, indicating a full-blown space war. However, the tension between the world's global powers isn't limited to space. 

In the oceans, the focus is on autonomous robots. Two years ago, DARPA introduced the concept of its Manta Ray program, which aimed to create an autonomous robot for ocean missions.

Today, the project is well underway. Earlier this month, the military shared new images of one of the robot prototypes, which is quite large, to say the least. 

Race to conquer the ocean. Since humans began traveling by ship, the ocean has been a battleground. First, we had to drive the ships. Now, robots are being used to achieve marine superiority. In recent months, some countries have been testing robots using robots to navigate the oceans in real situations. For instance, Ukraine has used kamikaze drones similar to jet skis during the war against Russia. However, there are also cases like the U.S. Orca or the Australian Ghost Shark, which are autonomous submarines equipped with artificial intelligence systems that can perform missions, such as patrols, independently.

Animal-inspired robots. In this category, we can find robots like Northrop Grumman’s Manta Ray, which DARPA is developing. Similar to other robots such as the flame-throwing robot dog, the design of the Manta Ray is inspired by nature, specifically by manta rays. Notably, though, it looks more like a futuristic submarine. In 2021, Chinese researchers started operating an unmanned underwater vehicle that more accurately resembles a manta ray, fin movement and all.

Long-term underwater missions. While it's not clear what China aims to accomplish with its manta ray drone, the U.S. military is pretty upfront about its objetives. According to Northrop Grumman, the Manta Ray will serve as an autonomous unmanned underwater vehicle for long-duration underwater missions, “going where humans can’t.” The uncrewed underwater vehicle, or UUV, drone is equipped to operate without on-site human logistical support and has a very interesting energy-saving mode.

In a promotional video from January 2022, officials demonstrated that the Manta Ray could anchor itself to the seafloor and enter into a low-power state. In these cases, the team also deploys a small drone, which can communicate with the outside world. The small drone resides in one of the compartments of the UUV.

Manta Ray

Limited battery life? Autonomous vehicles face a significant challenge in terms of their power supply. Some have longer a battery life than others depending on the vehicle type. As noted by The War Zone, the Manta Ray team is working on a solution: the Thermal Energy Pod, which could potentially offer unlimited energy. The capsule, created by Seatrec, extracts energy from the ocean’s thermal gradient (the difference between warmer and colder temperatures at different ocean levels), which is then converted into electricity.

Although the technology appears promising, the teams at Northrop and Seatrec state that it “currently exists as a paper concept only." As such, it may take some time before we see the Manta Ray and other UUVs with long-lasting batteries in operation.

Huge, modular, and big cargo capacity. When it was first introduced, the Manta Ray didn’t seem that, but new Northrop images have demonstrated that it is truly an enormous UVV device. This makes sense considering it’s not only designed for reconnaissance missions. It also has several compartments to carry different tools during missions, so it requires big internal space.

However, transportation of such a large device can be a problem. To address this, according to DARPA, the Manta Ray has been designed to be simple and modular, which will allow it to be assembled and easily deployed in the mission area. It’s intended to be shipped in five standard shipping containers. While this might sound like a lot, but the device will take up less space during transportation.

Images | DARPA

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