The US has launched a new self-driving warship, which is designed to hunt for enemy submarines.

Christened Sea Hunter, the prototype is unarmed, but is capable of patrolling the surface of the world’s oceans for up to three months at a time – without a crew, and without being controlled remotely.

“This is an inflection point. This is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship,” US Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work is quoted as saying by Reuters.

Sea Hunter

The autonomous ship sits alongside unmanned drones in a broader strategy to incorporate AI technology into the military. According to Reuters, it is projected to cost $20m to build and then $15,000-20,000 a day to run. This comparatively low cost has the potential to make the ship a highly useful asset for the US navy.

However, the ship must first undergo two years of testing. Most importantly, it must prove itself capable of following international norms for ocean operations. Its radar and cameras must successfully ensure it can avoid other vessels – otherwise the project could be sunk before it really gets going.

In the future, the possibility does exist to arm the vessel. However, Work emphasised that the decision to use lethal force would remain with humans.

The future of warfare

Advances in technology and artificial intelligence could be bringing the introduction of lethal autonomous weapons (LAW) ever closer. Unlike with drones, or potentially in the future warships like Sea Hunter, the decision to select, attack and destroy targets would take place without human intervention.

 The countries involved in developing fully autonomous weapons.
Image: Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

At this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, the ‘What if: Robots go to War?’ session examined this very possibility. Issues of morality, accountability and the need for policy reform that keeps up with technology were all raised by the panel.

The importance of the issue was also highlighted last year when over 1,000 robotics experts and AI researchers signed a letter calling for ‘offensive autonomous weapons’ to be banned. Signatories included the likes of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak.