Military

US Navy demonstrates how robotic "swarm" boats could protect warships

US Navy demonstrates how robot...
The ONR's robotic boats are designed to autonomously swarm an attacking vessel (Photo: ONR)
The ONR's robotic boats are designed to autonomously swarm an attacking vessel (Photo: ONR)
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The ONR swarm fleet is designed to deal with the threat of small fast boats in harbor (Photo: ONR)
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The ONR swarm fleet is designed to deal with the threat of small fast boats in harbor (Photo: ONR)
The Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) technology can be fitted to almost any boat (Photo: ONR)
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The Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) technology can be fitted to almost any boat (Photo: ONR)
August's demonstration involved up to 13 robotic boats
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August's demonstration involved up to 13 robotic boats
The Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) technology kit (Photo: ONR)
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The Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) technology kit (Photo: ONR)
The remote interface for the swarm fleet (Photo: ONR)
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The remote interface for the swarm fleet (Photo: ONR)
The ONR's robotic boats are designed to autonomously swarm an attacking vessel (Photo: ONR)
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The ONR's robotic boats are designed to autonomously swarm an attacking vessel (Photo: ONR)
A rendering of the robotic swarm in action (Image: ONR)
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A rendering of the robotic swarm in action (Image: ONR)
The weapons on the robotic boats remain under human control (Photo: ONR)
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The weapons on the robotic boats remain under human control (Photo: ONR)
The sensor package on a robotic boat (Photo: ONR)
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The sensor package on a robotic boat (Photo: ONR)

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.

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 weapons on the robotic boats remain under human control (Photo: ONR)
The weapons on the robotic boats remain under human control (Photo: ONR)

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.

A rendering of the robotic swarm in action (Image: ONR)
A rendering of the robotic swarm in action (Image: ONR)

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.

Source: ONR

Autonomous Swarm

13 comments
Rt1583
"In an age plagued by terrorism" Absolutely the funniest lead in statement I have read in quite a while.
Danny Allman
@Rt1583 — I don't understand why you find the statement funny. In the late 20th century and into the 21st, terrorism is a fact of life on land, air and sea. Need I bring the obvious examples at sea (piracy on a daily basis in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia and elsewhere, the 1985 PLO hijacking of the MS Achille Lauro, the October 2000 terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole, then refueling in Yemen, etc. etc.)? You have one very strange sense of humor. Maybe you want to check with the victims to see if they find terrorism funny?
Slowburn
I'll bet that claymore mines mounted on the ships hulls above the water line would work too and be cheaper.
f8lee
@slowburn - no doubt that approach would help with regard to pirate issues, but for the dinghy-laden-with-C4 sidling up to the hull carrying a couple of death-loving jihadists it wouldn't help.
The 1 TaiN
I know that nobody in defense industry want to openly talk about it. But it's only matter of time, before one is directly deployed and used against a "Human Being". Better SOONER than LATER. Laser Defense Systems. Because, I can guarantee the Enemy will use it against us, without hesitation, if they have one available too them. Something worth thinking about.
warren52nz
Is anyone else nervous about a sentence that contains both "autonomously" and "destroy"?
nicho
@Danny Allman - First, Piracy != terrorism, its piracy. Second, 'plagued'. I do not think this word means what you think it means.
sgdeluxedoc
Autonomous robots searching out and attacking enemy vessels? Dear God.. I thought this kind of madness was still relegated to the fields of xcience fiction, knowing the obvious ramifications of such technology. Perhaps these designers ought to be strapped in to watch the last few episodes of Stargateunivers..
Michiel Mitchell
and for a moment there I was reading.."...could protect a whale from being hunted down and killed..."
Slowburn
@ f8lee If they keep coming after you hit them with a water-cannon blow them to hell.