What in-water tests did the American Manta Ray UUV prototype conduct

Announcements from Northrop Grumman and DARPA reveal that the developmental prototype of the Manta Ray Unmanned Underwater Vehicle [UUV] has successfully completed full-scale tests in water. This accomplishment shows that the submarine effectively demonstrated hydrodynamic performance at sea, using all operational modes — buoyancy, propellers, and control surface mechanisms. 

What in-water tests did the American Manta Ray UUV prototype conduct
Photo credit: DARPA

A statement from Northrop Grumman suggests that the Manta Ray is ready for “real-world” deployment, following these successful tests. They stressed the distinctive capability of the UUV, highlighting its unique blend of modular transcontinental transport, on-site assembly, and subsequent deployment as a first in this category of large unmanned underwater vehicles. 

With the objective to innovate a new category of durable, long-range, payload-capable UUVs designed for prolonged operations in dynamic marine environments, the Manta Ray project is impressive. Collaborating with the U.S. Navy on next-level testing and transitioning, DARPA eagerly awaits the proceedings. Meanwhile, PacMar Technologies, the secondary contractor for the Manta Ray, has scheduled its full-scale energy harvesting system test for 2024.

What in-water tests did the American Manta Ray UUV prototype conduct
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

What the Manta Ray UUV is?

The Manta Ray Unmanned Underwater Vehicle [UUV] is a type of autonomous underwater drone developed for both military and research applications. It is designed to operate in various marine environments, from the shallow coastal waters to the deep sea. The Manta Ray UUV gets its name from the manta ray, a large species of ray found across tropical, subtropical, and temperate ocean waters, due to its unique design that mimics the hydrodynamic properties of the manta ray, facilitating efficient movement and maneuverability underwater. 

This UUV is equipped with advanced sensors and communication systems, enabling it to perform a wide range of tasks, including underwater surveillance, mine detection and neutralization, oceanographic research, and seabed mapping. A noteworthy feature of the Manta Ray UUV is its long endurance. It is designed to operate over extended periods without the need for frequent maintenance or battery recharging, making it ideal for missions requiring long-term deployment. 

Despite its advanced capabilities, the Manta Ray UUV is relatively compact and lightweight, adding to the ease of deploying it from various platforms, such as surface vessels and submarines. This flexibility significantly broadens its operational possibilities.

Understanding the tests

The hydrodynamic performance of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles [UUVs] is tested at sea through a series of carefully designed and controlled experiments. Firstly, the UUV is subjected to straight-line tests. These tests are conducted to measure the vehicle’s drag and lift coefficients, which are essential parameters in determining the UUV’s speed and maneuverability. The UUV is driven at different speeds, and its motion is tracked using GPS or sonar systems. 

Secondly, turning circle tests are performed. In these tests, the UUV is commanded to perform a series of turns at different speeds and radii. This helps in determining the vehicle’s turning performance and its ability to maintain a steady course in the presence of currents. Thirdly, the UUV’s seakeeping ability is tested. This involves exposing the vehicle to different wave conditions and observing its behavior. The UUV’s ability to maintain its course and speed in rough seas is a critical aspect of its hydrodynamic performance. 

Lastly, the UUV’s endurance and efficiency are evaluated. This is done by running the vehicle at a constant speed for an extended period and measuring its power consumption. The results of these tests provide valuable information about the UUV’s operational range and its energy efficiency.

Manta Ray will collect energy

However, one crucial system of the Manta Ray UUV, being developed by PacMar Technologies, has yet to be tested. This energy harvesting mechanism is an innovative solution that enables the UUV to generate its own power from the surrounding environment. Such a system aims to boost the UUV’s endurance and operational capabilities, thereby reducing the necessity for regular recharging or battery replacement. 

At the heart of this energy harvesting system is a bio-inspired mechanism, that emulates the natural movements of aquatic creatures. This mechanism enables the Manta Ray UUV to capture energy from the ocean’s thermal gradients and kinetic energy from the water flow. This harvested energy is then transformed into electrical power that fuels the UUV’s systems and sensors. 

Furthermore, the energy harvesting system features a highly efficient energy storage unit. This component can store harvested energy for later use, guaranteeing that the UUV continues operations even in scenarios where energy harvesting is unfeasible. The energy storage system also serves to regulate the power supply, providing a steady stream of energy to the UUV’s systems.

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