The US Navy has successfully completed a test mission for autonomous, unmanned boats that can protect a bigger ship, or swarm an enemy target with co-ordinated kamikaze attacks. Using existing NASA technology, these boats will be deployed within months.
“Our sailors and marines can’t fight tomorrow’s battles using yesterday’s technology,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of the Office of Naval Research (ONR). “This kind of breakthrough is the result of the Navy’s long-term support for innovative research in science and technology.”
In the August test, the details of which were revealed by the ONR on Sunday, 13 rigid-hulled inflatable boats escorted a larger ship – the Relentless, overseen by a single controller located on the ship itself – down James River in Virginia.
“It could be the straits of Malacca, it could be the straits of Hormuz,”Klunder said during a media Q&A, when asked about what the mission was simulating.
In the second part of the exercise, a boat designated as hostile appeared on the far side of the river. Eight smaller craft, which are usually equipped with machine guns, took off in formation and surrounded the target vessel, with the rest staying behind to guard the valuable mother ship.
“Think about it as replicating the functions that a human boat pilot would do. We’ve taken that capability and extended it to multiple units operating together…within that, we’ve designed team behaviors,” said head of the program Robert Brizzarola. The program had been partly inspired by the 2000 incident in which the destroyer USS Cole had its hull blown apart by a single explosives-laden Al-Qaeda boat.
“It will remove our sailors and marines from many dangerous situations – for instance when they need to approach hostile or suspicious vessels. If an adversary were to fire on the USVs, no humans would be at risk.”
The software installed on the craft was initially developed by NASA for its Mars Curiosity Rover, which has been exploring the surface of the planet for the past two years.
Klunder said that as well as potentially saving lives, it allows to drastically decrease the number of personnel needed to operate the boat. At least 40 people were initially needed to man the vessels, which can now be controlled by just one person.
“The excitement about this technology is it is autonomous,” Klunder said. “So we’re not talking about people having to drive with toggle switches.”
Though he assured that while the vessels will not only locate the enemy, but lock him in sights, a human will have the final say on any use of weapons.
“We have every intention to use those unmanned systems to engage a threat. There is always a human in the loop of that designation of the target and if so, the destruction of the target.”
Another advantage is cost – the AI and communications will reportedly cost only $2,000, a pittance by the usual military expenditure standards.
“We’re talking thousands, not talking millions to adapt what we already have – existing craft in our fleet,” said Klunder
“So we’re not going out and buying new patrol craft.”
But the aspect of the program that seems to most excite its developers – Klunder called it the “secret sauce” – are the bold new tactical opportunities provided by relatively cheap boats, without risking human lives.
“A team can do more than the individual parts. That is true with humans and it’s true with robots. The cooperation opens up the capabilities of unmanned systems. One finds a target, tells everyone else and they figure out how to overcome it. The really powerful thing about a swarm is that you’re willing to sacrifice some parts of it to aid the overall cause,” explained Peter W. Singer, unmanned systems expert and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
The ONR says that after the test, which was a “resounding success,” the new robotic systems could be rolled out in twelve months. And while initially they may be used for escort missions in high-risk areas, they should eventually become ubiquitous.
“This is something that you might find not only just on our naval vessels, we could certainly see this utilized to protect merchant vessels, to protect ports and harbors, used also to protect offshore oil rigs,” Klunder said.