The US aerospace and defence giant has been allocated US$12.3 million by the Pentagon’s DARPA – which has pivoted in recent years towards equipping warfighters and first responders to explore uncharted environments that are “too dangerous, dark, or deep to risk human lives”.
The extra-large Manta Ray unmanned underwater vehicles will emphasise duration, range and autonomy to circumvent the need for traditional servicing ports and human logistic elements when deployed in forward environments. In a statement released by the agency, DARPA suggests that remaining independent of manned refuelling vessels and ports will give the "combatant commander an amplification of capacity".
DARPA also outlined a number of salient points that will be targeted in order to drive efficiency increases. Though sparse on detail, the agency suggested that new approaches to energy management and propulsion – including undersea energy harvesting techniques – would yield increases in operational efficiency.
Though novel in this approach, the unmanned vehicles are geared towards much of the same mission-critical goals as their counterparts currently in service. The drones will be both surveillance-equipped and payload-capable; however, their increased size and efficiency will position them with a marked advantage for deployment in a transport capacity.
The award concludes a competitive bidding process that pitted major industry players against one another. DARPA first put out a call for tenders on the project in June 2019; Lockheed Martin's successful bid has completion slated as soon as January 2021.
At the time of award, the company will receive an advance of US$1.15 million in R&D funding. Although a majority (52 per cent) of the works are scheduled to take place in West Palm Beach, Florida, ancillary work will also take place in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and other locations across the US.