Northrup Grunman’s “Manta Ray” Could Be the World’s Largest Underwater Drone

Many aerial drones take their design inspiration from the form and function of birds.  But in the case of the Northrup Grunman’s “Manta Ray” underwater drone, or UUV – its animal prototype is a large fish – a stingray to be exact.

Manta Rays in the wild are among the world’s largest stingrays, with flapping underwater “wings” known to reach 23-29 feet.  Grunman’s Manta Ray is almost as large and moves in the water with the same long glide-like motion.  And like its fish counterpart, it’s extraordinarily intelligent, too.

At least it will be, once Grunman and DARPA, the Defense funding unit which is sponsoring its development, decides exactly what activities the drone will be tasked to perform.

The US Navy is heavily promoting UUVs, mostly smaller ones, for military operations to counter China and other US enemies.  Military UUVSs already in service can detect and lay mines or shoot torpedoes like a submarine.  They can also engage in long-distance surveillance and intelligence-gathering missions – for hours and even weeks,   Civilian UUVs can collect scientific data on underwater marine conditions.

The Navy clearly has big ideas for what will likely be its biggest drone – should it decide to purchase the Manta down the road.  The Manta has the potential to carry multiple payloads and perform a range of missions, either remotely or fully autonomously.  It can also hibernate on the ocean floor in “stealth” mode, awaiting operational instructions, or quietly gathering data.

“Once deployed, the vehicle uses efficient, buoyancy-driven gliding to move through the water,” says Dr Kyle Woerner, Manta Ray’s program manager at DARPA.  That makes the vessel quiet and difficult to detect, using sonar alone.

The drone also boasts a modular design which allows it to be assembled and taken apart quickly and transported for rapid deployment anywhere in the world in just five shipping containers.

In March, DARPA and Grumnan conducted the first live in-water demonstration of the Manta Ray in waters off the coast of southern California.  The demonstration tested the craft’s buoyancy and propeller capabilities and ability to maneuver with remote and autonomous self-guidance.  According to official sources, Manta passed the test with flying colors.

DARPA is also supporting Manta Ray prototype development by another defense firm, Pacmar Technologies, formerly known as the Martin Defense Group LLC.  A third firm, Metron Inc. was originally scheduled to compete, but dropped out in late 2021.

Pacmar Technologies conducted its own in-water prototype “splash test” off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii last September.

Manta Ray is not the U.S. Navy’s only UUV prototype development program.  In February, DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) awarded Anduril a contract to prototype a “distributed, long-range, persistent underwater sensing and payload delivery large autonomous underwater vehicle.”

Many other countries, including China, Russia, the UK and Australia, are also fast-tracking their UUV development programs.  Even Ukraine is developing a UUV system, ostensibly for warfare against Russia’s Black Fleet.

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