The US Navy has demonstrated technology that allows unmanned boats to offensively ‘swarm’ hostile vessels for the first time.
As many as 13 autonomous unmanned surface vehicle (USV) fitted with sensors were operated either autonomously or using remote control to first escort a high-value Navy ship and then, when a simulated enemy vessel was detected, swarm around the threat.
The technology – called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing) – is under development by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and can be put into a transportable kit and installed on almost any boat.
It allows boats to operate without the need for a sailor at the controls, including operating in sync with other unmanned vessels; choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting or protecting assets.
"This networking unmanned platforms demonstration was a cost-effective way to integrate many small, cheap, and autonomous capabilities that can significantly improve our warfighting advantage," said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations.
The technology was demonstrated in trials over two weeks in August on the James River in Virginia. Even multiple USVs are a fraction of the cost of a single large manned ship, according to the ONR, which believes that the system could be scaled to include greater numbers of USVs and also other platforms, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The new technology will allow the USVs to detect, deter or destroy attacking adversaries, but the ONR said that any decision to fire weapons from the USVs would need to be initiated by a sailor supervising the mission.
"This multiplies combat power by allowing CARACaS-enabled boats to do some of the dangerous work," said Dr Robert Brizzolara, program manager at ONR. "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 announcement comes near the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in October 2000 attack, which killed 17 Sailors and injured 39 others.
"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," said 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."