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Friday, November 27, 2015

Roborace Championship Will Pit Driverless Electric Cars Against Each Other

As reported by GizMag: A new racing championship will do away with drivers. Roborace will pit driverless electric cars against each other in a round-the-world series. It will provide a competitive platform for the autonomous driving technology that is being developed by automotive and tech firms, as well as universities.

Roborace has been developed in a partnership between the electric racing series Formula E, which is currently in its second season, and investment firm Kinetik. It will form part of the support package for the Formula E Championship, with races taking place at the same circuits prior to each Formula E race.
Ten teams will compete in the Roborace championship, each with two driverless cars. The running of one team will be crowdsourced by a community of software and technology enthusiasts, and experts from around the world. All the teams will use the same car , but will be able to alter its software to gain a competitive advantage over the course of one-hour races.
Formula E says the aim of Roborace is to demonstrate the capabilities of autonomous driving technology, even in extreme conditions, while Kinetik's Denis Sverdlov says it will help to show that we can co-exist with such technologies. CEO of Formula E Alejandro Agag describes the new series as "an open challenge to the most innovative scientific and technology-focused companies in the world."
The Roborace series is scheduled to debut in the 2016-17 season, with further details about its teams and technologies to be announced early next year.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

This App Helps You to Visualize the Cell Towers, Wifi Signals, and Satellites Around You

As reported by GizmodoYou’re aware that your cell service comes from cell towers. And that your mapping app is made possible by GPS satellites. And that wifi signals deliver your fail videos. But the sight of that invisible world is breathtaking.

This summer, a Dutch artist named Richard Vijgen released a video of a project he was working on called the Architecture of Radio. It was an augmented reality app that revealed the waves and signals in a given room, pulling information from publicly available databases on cell tower locations and satellites. It revealed an unearthly, web-like network of invisible infrastructure that powers our world—and unsurprisingly, a lot of people wanted to try it for themselves.
Sadly, the app itself wasn’t ready for public consumption... until today. You can now download the $3 iOS app for iPhone or iPad. When you fire it up, you see a cobalt-blue screen where the app takes your GPS location and loads a series of datasets drawn from a global database that includes the cell towers around you and the satellites overhead (like this one). All in all, the database includes “7 million cell towers, 19 million Wi-Fi routers and hundreds of satellites.”
This Beautiful App Lets You See the Cell Towers, Wifi Signals, and Satellites Around You
As you pan around your house, the app identifies signals and waves as you move: There’s a cell tower 589 meters to my left. If it was night, I could look out for a Russian satellite from 1964 passing to the south. It’s a bit like having x-ray glasses on.
The app warns that it is “not a measurement tool.” For example, the atmospheric waves and dots that texture the screen are an interpretation of waves, not a scientific reality. But the actual datapoints are real, based on your GPS coordinates and scraped from a database, which is pretty cool. Or terrifying, if you’re more of a tin-foil hat person.
“Most people seem to be amazed by the density of signals, some think it’s a bit scary, others just think it’s beautiful,” Vijgen told Gizmodo over email. In the end, it’s a lovely reminder of the vast network all around us, hidden in plain sight. You can get it here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin May Just Have Beaten Elon Musk's SpaceX in the Reusable Rocket Race

As reported by EngadgetBlue Origin, the private space firm owned by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, has just dropped a huge, unexpected gauntlet in the race to develop a reusable rocket. It just launched itsNew Shepard space vehicle (video, below) consisting of a BE-3 rocket and crew capsule to a suborbital height of around 100.5 kilometers (62 miles). The capsule then separated and touched down beneath a parachute, but more importantly, the BE-3 rocket also started its own descent. After the rockets fired at nearly 5,000 feet, it made a a controlled vertical landing at a gentle 4.4 mph.

So far, SpaceX has managed to get its own reusable booster close to its barge platform, but hasn't nailed the landing yet. Elon Musk's company does have a more daunting task, however -- its Falcon 9 reusable first stage is propelling the rocket to an orbital, not suborbital altitude. While SpaceX's rocket separates at a similar height of around 50 miles, its speed at that point is much faster than that of New Shepard -- around Mach 10 compared to Mach 3.7. As a result, it continues to an apogee height of nearly 90 miles, so it has a lot further to fall. During its last attempt, the rocket unfortunately exploded early in the flight, setting the program back significantly.
Bezos boasted that the BE-3 is "now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas, [and] is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket." He added that "it flew a flawless mission -- soaring to 329,839 feet and then returning through 199-mph high-altitude crosswinds to make a gentle, controlled landing just four-and-a-half feet from the center of the pad." In the video below, you can see the rocket approaching the ground at dramatically high speeds, then slowing rapidly with a final rocket thrust as the landing gear deploys. Meanwhile, the drogue parachutes on the capsule unfurled at 20,045 feet, helping the crew craft make a (fairly) gentle desert "splashdown."
The New Shepard and BE-3 are intended to be used in Blue Origin's suborbital space program, mainly for a commercial space tourism. Blue Origin hasn't set a date for flights yet, but the program is intended to carry six astronauts to the boundary of space at around 100 km in altitude. Also in that race is Virgin Galactic, which itself was badly set back by its SpaceShip 2 crash that resulted in the death of a pilot. Blue Origin's BE-3 rocket may also be used by United Launch Alliance to power the second stage of its Vulcan orbital rocket.

Friday, November 20, 2015

NASA Orders First Crewed Mission From SpaceX to the International Space Station

As reported by The VergeNASA has officially ordered its first commercial crew mission from private spaceflight company SpaceX. That means SpaceX has NASA's authority to proceed with the first crewed launch of the company's Crew Dragon capsule, which can carry up to seven people in lower Earth orbit. The mission is slated for sometime in late 2017, but the exact date has not yet been determined.
SpaceX and Boeing hold contracts with NASA through the space agency's Commercial Crew Program. The initiative tasks the two companies with creating and operating spacecraft that can ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Currently, NASA is without a primary space vehicle and must rely on the Russian Soyuz rocket, which costs $80 million to get just one US astronaut into lower Earth orbit. Commercial Crew will allow American astronauts to get to the ISS on American-made vehicles once again, and for much lower costs.
According to the contracts, NASA guarantees it will make at least four orders from SpaceX and Boeing for crewed missions to the ISS. Boeing received its first official order in May of this year, beating out SpaceX by six months. However, the race is still on to see who will launch their mission. NASA says it will figure out later when the launches will take place.
Mission orders are made two to three years prior to launch date, according to NASA, so that the companies have time to assemble their launch vehicles and their spacecraft. Neither SpaceX nor Boeing have actually built their respective crew vehicles yet. Boeing is getting started on manufacturing its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, and SpaceX is working on its Crew Dragon, which is an enhanced version of its Dragon cargo capsule.
The order also comes at an odd time for SpaceX. The company's fleet of rockets have been grounded since June, after a Falcon 9 carrying supplies to the ISS exploded post-launch. SpaceX figured that a faulty strut in the rocket's upper fuel tank was to blame, but its flights have been on hold as the company conducted a complete investigation into the incident. SpaceX is expected to return to launch sometime in December, but no official date has been set.
Additionally, it's possible that SpaceX's crewed mission for NASA won't happen in 2017 as planned. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has admonished Congress several times, claiming the Commercial Crew Program has been consistently underfunded. IfNASA doesn't get adequate funds in time, the first launch under the program — whether it be from SpaceX or Boeing — will likely be pushed back to 2018.

Tesla Disables Some Autopilot Features in Hong Kong

As reported by Fortune:Tesla reportedly said Tuesday it would be temporarily disabling automatic steering and lane-changing on all Model S vehicles in Hong Kong.

The company had enabled the feature for all Model S owners without first retrieving approval by the city’s Transport Department. The Wall Street Journal reports that the agency is now saying the new software might not meet regulations and has requested that Tesla stop releasing it to more vehicles and disable the function on ones that already have it.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has previously referred to the electric car’s autopilot as a “public beta.” The company continues to refine the function as drivers use it. Hong Kong’s Transport Department has issued a warning to Tesla Model S owners stating the following:

“Although vehicles may be equipped with advanced driver assistance systems, the roads in Hong Kong are extremely busy, and motorists should stay alert [and] maintain control of the vehicle.”

The South China Morning Post writes that the agency has approved Tesla’s autoparking function, but not automatic steering or lane-changing. Tesla is currently working with the department to get the necessary approval.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Here’s What Volvo Thinks You’ll Do When Your Car is Driving Itself

As reported by The Verge: According to Volvo’s research, the average American spends 26 minutes driving to work. One way. That’s more than nine days a year, and the Swedish carmaker is building a time machine to get some of that time back for you.
Well, it’s not actually a time machine (though that would be awesome too). This is Concept 26, Volvo’s vision for what a driver will do while the car is driving itself, unveiled today at the LA Auto Show. It’s very different than futuristic concepts like the Mercedes F 015 which shows a bunch of people facing each other while the car whisks them off to a cocktail party or wherever. The idea is to give you some of that time back from your commute, so you can get some work done, chat on the phone, or watch Game of Thrones— things that people sometimes do during their commute now, but we’ll all have the added benefit of not being in mortal peril while they do so.
Volvo research has shown that most people will use autonomous drive on their way to work, during the boring parts of the commute like stop-and-go traffic on the highway. It’s unlikely that you will have anyone else in the car, just like today, so there’s no need to spin the seat around to face your passengers — which is fine, because the company says most people really don’t want to ride backwards anyway.
Concept 26, named after the 26-minute average commute, is pretty close to how the interior of Volvo’s Drive Me program will work, where the company will give 100 autonomous capable XC90 SUVs to real people in its hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.
According to Volvo’s research, vast majorities of car customers believe an autonomous vehicle should still have a steering wheel, and that they should be able to drive the car if they wish. It suggests many Americans might not be totally comfortable with Google’s self-driving pod (current versions have steering wheels for emergencies, but Google has envisioned a future wheel-free model). The company does note that driver acceptance of autonomous cars could increase as they become more popular.
Regardless, Volvo is looking at the near future — the next five to ten years or so — where autonomous cars will probably still have a hard time dealing with things like construction, traffic jams, and snow. So, Volvo says, there needs to be a way for the driver to switch between manual and autonomous mode, and back again. And, maybe most importantly, Volvo says we’ll be really comfortable while we do it.
Volvo’s self-driving car will talk to Volvo’s server’s in the cloud to make sure that it’s safe to go autonomous. If there are concerns about weather or construction or some other reason why autonomous might not work, the system will keep the driver firmly in control. Volvo — which seems to talk about safety more than any other car brand — is emphasizing that it wants to be sure the car is capable of driving itself safely before letting the driver relinquish control. While it didn’t actually come out and say that Tesla was being wildly reckless with its new Autopilot "beta," that was definitely the vibe being given off at a press event last week to preview Concept 26.
Volvo Concept 26
Volvo envisions three different modes for the driver. There’s the normal "Drive" mode, with the car in full manual mode, just like we have now.
Then there’s "Create." This retracts the steering wheel, slides the seat back, and opens a 25-inch flat-screen monitor from the passenger-side dashboard. A "tablet" in the center console slides back with the driver, maintaining access to all car functions like navigation and seating position, as well as giving control of the large monitor. Volvo envisions it as an extension to other devices like laptops or iPads or iPhones. It can be used to display content from those devices, or to watch TV or movies while the car takes care of the driving.
Finally, there’s "Relax" — my personal favorite — that reclines the seat even further and lets the driver watch TV or simply sit back and do nothing. Volvo’s seats have been some of the best in the industry for years, and the Concept 26 includes its next-generation seat which is designed to be outrageously comfortable (and safe, naturally) while reclining. That’s something that hasn’t been particularly important in a car before, especially for the driver.
When in autonomous mode, the dashboard changes too, swapping out the tachometer (because you don’t really need to know what the engine is doing when you aren’t driving) and replacing it with a countdown timer that shows how much time you have left in autonomous mode. If it says you have 25 minutes left, that’s plenty of time to watch an episode of 30 Rock. When the autonomous-capable portion of your drive is nearly finished, the car will request your attention and give you a minute or two to prepare yourself and take back control. If you don’t respond, the car will pull over to the side of the road and safely bring the car to a halt.
Volvo will continue to tweak Concept 26 ahead of the launch of its Drive Me program in Gothenburg, but if its vision of automated driving as a time machine is accurate, we’re all going to have a lot more time on our hands.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Find Your House On This Map and Watch the Satellites Passing Above You

As reported by GizmodoThere are more than 2,250 satellites orbiting the Earth right now. But that abstract number didn’t prepare me for the shock of watching a Soviet-era rocket body whipping over my house in real-time.

Then I watched an elderly Russian intelligence satellite glide over Seattle. A NOAA weather satellite slid by Newfoundland and the ISS passed over Sumatra, while China’s Tiangong manned station moved over the Mississippi River Delta. I was using Line of Sight, an extraordinary map created by Patricio Gonzalez, an artist and engineer at the open-source mapping startup Mapzen.
Satellites in orbit are moving at roughly 17,000 miles per hour, meaning they pass over your city in a matter of minutes, but that’s still enough time to spot them, if you know where to look—which has always been a challenge... until now. Using metadata about the thousands of orbiting satellites is available through sources like SatNOGS, Gonzalez’s map monitors satellites as they criss-cross the globe, allowing you to track specific spacecraft or learn when and where you should look to see those passing over your house.
When I first opened up the map, I navigated to Lake Michigan, and watched as a satellite passed over Chicago, where I live.
Find Your House On This Map and Watch the Satellites Passing Above You
A quick search of the name revealed the SL-16 is actually a rocket body built by the Soviet space program in the 1980s—essentially, space junk. There are actually 17 of them in orbit. It was part of a failed plan “to take over manned spaceship launches from Soyuz, but these plans were abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
If it had been nighttime, I would have known where to look for the rocket body, which is about as bright as stars in the big dipper, according to Space Weather.
The data Gonzalez used to create this map is readily available, and it’s not as though satellite-watching is a new idea. But for beginners, Line of Sight is a magical and visceral illustration of the spacecraft that make the modern world possible–turning them from an abstract idea into a blinking light, passing above your backyard. Go check it out here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

ULA Punts on GPS 3 Launch Contract Long Sought by SpaceX

As reported by SpaceNewsSpaceX is likely to win — by default — a U.S. Air Force contract to launch a next-generation GPS satellite after United Launch Alliance announced Nov. 16 that it declined to bid.
ULA, which for the past decade has launched nearly every U.S. national security satellite, said Nov. 16 it did not submit a bid to launch a GPS 3 satellite for the Air Force in 2018 in part because it does not expect to have an Atlas 5 rocket available for the mission. ULA has been pushing for relief from legislation Congress passed roughly a year ago requiring the Air Force to phase out its use of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket.
While ULA warned in early October that RD-180 availability could prevent it from bidding on the GPS 3 launch, the company said Nov. 16 it does not have the right accounting system in place to submit what the Air Force would deem a compliant bid.
“ULA wants nothing more than to compete, but unfortunately we are unable to submit a compliant bid for GPS III-X launch services,” the company said in a statement sent to reporters. “The [request for proposals] requires ULA to certify that funds from other government contracts will not benefit the GPS III launch mission. ULA does not have the accounting systems in place to make that certification, and therefore cannot submit a compliant proposal.”
ULA — which emphasizes the reliability of its Atlas and Delta rockets as an advantage over SpaceX’s lower advertised prices  —  also said the Air Force’s GPS 3 launch solicitation “allows for no ability to differentiate between competitors on the basis of critical factors such as reliability, schedule certainty, technical capability and past performance.”
The Air Force called for proposals for the GPS 3 launch Sept. 30. Bids were due Nov. 16 with an award expected in March.
ULA’s decision not to bid is a setback for Defense Department efforts to reintroduce competition into a national security launch market that’s been a de facto monopoly since Boeing and Lockheed Martin merged their launch businesses in 2006 at the government’s request.
The GPS 3 mission is the first of nine medium-class launches the Air Force intends to put out for bid by the end of 2017. Of the nine, six are for GPS 3 satellites.
SpaceX, which is eager to break into the lucrative national security launch market, submitted an unsolicited bid in 2012 to launch the GPS 3 satellites for $79.9 million per launch. The Air Force rejected the offer, but initiated a process for certifying the Hawthorne, California-based company’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry military and intelligence payloads to orbit.
ULA, meanwhile, has been working to lower its launch costs. Last month, NASA awarded ULA a $132.4 million contract to launch the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M spacecraft aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in October 2017.  NASA paid ULA $187 million to launch the Mars Maven orbiter on an Atlas 5 in 2013.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Graphene Could Bring Night Vision to Phones and Cars

As reported by Engadget: Thermal imaging devices like night-vision goggles can help police, search-and-rescue teams and soldiers to pick out bad guys or victims through walls or in complete darkness. However, the best devices require cryogenic cooling, making them heavy, expensive and slow. Enter graphene, the semi-conducting material that's 100 times stronger than steel -- researchers from MIT have built a chip out of the material that may solve the problem. The resulting infrared sensors were small enough that they could be "integrated in every cellphone and every laptop," according to the study's co-author, Tomas Palacios.

Graphene is already one of the best infrared sensing materials, so the team first built a microscopic sensor chip out of the material. Further graphene was then used to carry the signals and suspend the chip over an air pocket, as shown below. That eliminated the need for external cooling, normally required by such devices to prevent internal heat from polluting the target's infrared signature.
The compact sensor was able to detect a human hand and heated-up MIT logo, a promising first result. The goal is to further improve the resolution, so the tech can be used in everyday devices. For example, Palacios told LiveScience that the sensors could one day be integrated into car windshields, giving you "night-vision systems in real time without blocking a driver's regular view of the road." That said, we're still waiting for a host of "promising" graphene-based technology to actually become usable products.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Autonomous Buses Will Hit Swiss Streets This Spring

As reported by MashableAutonomous cars are the hot topic in the transportation world right now, as evidenced by Volvo,Mercedes-Benz and Google rushing head-first into implementing the tech. However, self-driving cars aren't the be-all and end-all of piloted driving. Buses, too, will benefit from leaps forward in driverless technology.
Proving that point, CarPostal, the company leading public transportation in Switzerland, is launching a two-year autonomous bus pilot program in the tourist areas of Sion, Valais. The test-run will be operated by Swiss startup BestMile, which has developed software to "control fleets of autonomous vehicles in the same way a control tower does in an airport," according to a company press release.
Starting in spring 2016, the small fleet of nine electrified passenger buses will troll the streets of old-town Sion and autonomously transport residents and tourists through the city. The goal of the pilot program is to prove the viability of widespread autonomous public transportation, as it offers lower costs and "minimum risk." Ultimately, CarPostal would like to extend autonomous bus service into remote areas of the country.

BestMile autonomous bus

Rest assured, Swiss commuters, BestMile isn't rolling into this project blind. Before the announced Sion pilot program, BestMile spent two years creating a new generation of mathematical algorithms in order for autonomous vehicles to recognize and react to whatever scenarios they might encounter, as they interact with the existing public transportation system.
Until this point, America and Sweden had stood out as global early adopters of autonomous vehicle technology. Several American states — including Michigan, Nevada, Florida and California — have granted companies autonomous driving permits. And Gothenburg, Sweden has green-lit Volvo's "Drive Me" program that will put 100 self-driving XC90 SUVs on public roads in 2017.
It will be interesting to see how residents and visitors of Sion react to the autonomous buses. Likely, after the initial awkward stage, people will forget altogether that there's no one driving the bus. And it's that tacit trust that could lead to widespread acceptance of self-driving vehicles.

SpaceX Completes Development Testing of SuperDraco Engines

As reported by GizMagSpaceX has completed design testing of its SuperDraco engines, which, as a key element of the Crew Dragon's launch abort system (LAS), would be responsible for carrying a crew of astronauts out of harms way in the event of a launch failure.

Once complete, the Crew Dragon spacecraft will represent one of the cornerstones of NASA's drive to establish a cost effective, independent access to low-Earth orbit (LEO). For it to become human-rated, NASA has set a stringent set of criteria that must be met. One such criteria is the integration of a tried and tested LAS.

In the pursuit of this goal, SpaceX has decided to buck the trend, opting for an integrated system of four pairs of SuperDraco thrusters built in to the side of the crew capsule. That's a notably different approach to a key competitor in the Commercial Crew Development program – Boeing – which has opted for the traditional "rocket tower" design for the LAS system to protect crew riding aboard its Starliner spacecraft.
In the development of the SuperDraco thrusters, SpaceX embraced advances in the sphere of 3D printing technology. A key element of the rocket, known as the combustion chamber, is fabricated using solely 3D printing, cutting down on cost, waste, and making the production process more flexible in general.
During the recent testing at the company's rocket development facility in Texas, the thrusters were placed on a test stand and fired 27 times, progressing through various thrust cycles. The tests come in the wake of last year's LAS pad test for the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which served as proof that the design was indeed feasible.
Moving forward, SpaceX will continue to evaluate the performance of the thrusters, which it one day hopes to use during the descent phase, as a viable replacement for the current parachute system.
Scroll down for a video of last year's LAS test.

U.S. Air Force Updates GPS Ground Systems With Additional Security

As reported by Space News: The ground system for the U.S. Air Force’s position, navigation and timing satellites recently received a software update and security upgrade under a two-year-old contract with Lockheed Martin, the company announced in a Nov. 9 press release.

Known as the GPS Intrusion Protection Reinforcement, the updates enable greater data protection within the Air Force’s current Operational Control Segment, which serves as the ground system for the Air Force’s GPS satellites. The updates also resolve equipment obsolescence issues.

The new software was installed at the GPS Master Control Station at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is the second major technology refresh since the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $104 million ground system sustainment contract in 2013.

“The GPS Control Segment Sustainment (GCS) contract is vitally important to the sustainment of positioning, navigation and timing services for our military, government officials and citizens,” Vinny Sica, vice president space ground solutions at Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Solutions of Herndon, Virginia, said in the release. “A system this large requires a continued security focus.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

DARPA Is About to Start Testing an Autonomous, Submarine-Hunting Ocean Drone

As reported by Motherboard: Early next year, DARPA will begin testing a 132-foot unmanned submarine-hunting ocean drone in San Diego. Slapped with the cumbersome title of Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), it’s designed to do exactly that: track stealth submarines from the surface, quietly and autonomously.

The ACTUV is currently under construction at a facility on the Oregon coast, where it is 90 percent complete. When finished, DARPA hopes it will be able to withstand months of autonomous operations at sea. It will weigh 140 tons, and will be able to hone in on the quietest submarines in the water from the surface, and automatically trail them.

The vessel is so far not necessarily being touted explicitly as a weapon, but, according to DARPA, it will have the capacity to "carry a payload" and “enable independently deploying systems.” On the US DoD’s science site, the vessel is being compared to naval destroyers, which are currently tasked with trailing—and are outfitted to eliminate—submarines. (According to DARPA, one of the ACTUV's chief selling points is that it will be much cheaper than a naval destroyer: The drone boat costs as little as $15,000 a day to operate, versus the destroyer’s $700,000 per day price tag.)

Like many of the advanced robotics projects the US military’s blue sky lab is researching, DARPA seems to be leaving room to weaponize the vessel, while allowing plausible deniability as to the instrument’s intent. This is especially important because the Pentagon’s autonomous weapons directive prohibits fully autonomous machines from using lethal or semi-lethal force, which would apply to the ACTUV should it move beyond the testing stages and ever be outfitted with weaponry. DARPA did not respond to a request for comment.

The development also seems conspicuously timed with the re-emergence of Russia's submarine fleet, which is thought to be dispersed amongst the hotly contested Arctic—recent sightings seem to confirm their presence, and Putin has not been shy about using them in military exercises in the region.

But the focus seems to be on developing autonomous systems that can operate in water. In its official Request for Information, it states that "DARPA is interested in hardware and software solutions that enable an autonomous lookout from a surface vessel."

Meanwhile, one of DARPA’s stated “three primary goals” for the initiative is to “Advance unmanned maritime system autonomy to enable independently deploying systems capable of missions spanning thousands of kilometers of range and months of endurance under a sparse remote supervisory control model,” as Scott Littlefield, program manager of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, explained in the project description.

“This includes autonomous compliance with maritime laws and conventions for safe navigation, autonomous system management for operational reliability, and autonomous interactions with an intelligent adversary,” he added.

In other words, DARPA’s drone boat submarine-hunter would be able to spend months at sea, where it would be able to automatically trail its target, automatically negotiate its surroundings, and, eventually, one imagines, it might automatically destroy an “intelligent adversary.” The Department of Defense notes that “other advantages of the ACTUV concept include greater payload and endurance than a ship-launched unmanned surface vehicle.”

The foremost objective for ACTUV is to trail submarines, but DARPA is apparently exploring other options too. “The Navy is considering using this for a variety of missions,” Littlefield said in a recent announcement, according to the Department of Defense, “including mine countermeasures.”

As the polar ice caps melt and sea levels rise, as new northern passageways open up for maritime trade, expect military tensions in the gas and oil rich Arctic to only ratchet upwards. Russia's belligerence has so far turned the most heads, but Canada and the US each have heavily vested interests in the region. The near future, it seems, may be marked by drones stalking submarines through the slushy detritus of the Arctic.