In an age plagued by terrorism, the threat posed to the world’s navies and merchant fleets by small craft laden with explosives or crews with automatic weapons is a very real and present danger. To help combat this, the United States Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) is developing a fleet of robotic patrol boats that can not only act as escorts for larger warships or merchant vessels, but can also autonomously swarm around a threatening craft and destroy it.
Modern warships are incredible machines, with some capable of singlehandedly defending the entire airspace of a small country, yet they are also extremely vulnerable to attacks by small craft when in harbor. A case in point is the destroyer USS Cole, which on October 12, 2000, while refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden, was crippled when a small rubber dinghy came alongside and detonated. It blew a 60-ft (18-m) hole in the side of the ship, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.
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The reason for this vulnerability is that when warships are at anchor or moving in or out of port, they cannot use their speed and maneuverability, nor their weapons, to deal with small, fast-moving craft in narrow waterways.
The ONR’s answer to the threat is to use the attackers' own method against them while adding a robotic advantage. To do this, the agency has developed a kit that it says can be fitted to almost any boat to turn it into an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) – robot attack craft – that can operate with a fleet of similar boats as armed escorts for transiting warships or merchants. In a demonstration on the James River in Virginia last August, the ONR showed how the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) technology was able to use its combination of sensors, software, and control mechanisms to operate autonomously under the supervision of a sailor in a remote location. Without human intervention, 13 robotic boats were able to operate in synchronization with one another, navigate to their intended locations, and swarm enemy vessels while escorting or guarding Navy warships. The ONR says that in future, the system will be able to cope with much larger robotic fleets.
The purpose of this swarming maneuver is to provide Navy commanders with more options in dealing with threats. According to the ONR, a swarm of USVs could intercept a potentially threatening vessel, warn it off, engage at close quarters, or even destroy it without risking the sailors’ lives and at the fraction of the cost of one large manned boat. Though the robotic craft are designed to operate autonomously, the agency emphasizes that the firing of weapons remains exclusively under human control.
"While the attack on Cole was not the only motivation for developing autonomous swarm capability, it certainly is front and center in our minds, and hearts," says Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder. "If Cole had been supported by autonomous USVs, they could have stopped that attack long before it got close to our brave men and women on board."
The video below shows the ONR boat swarm in action.