The US Navy, obviously a little bit jealous of the US Air Force’s autonomous aerial drones, has unveiled its new autonomous swarmboats. Swarmboats — that’s what the Navy is calling them, not me! — are smaller, artificially intelligent boats that protect the Navy’s larger ships by swarming enemy vessels and interdicting them before they can get close. The development of the swarmboats is most likely a direct response to the suicide bombing of USS Cole, where in October 2000 a small boat filled with explosives simply puttered up to the ship and killed 17 sailors.
The swarmboats — or to give their more formal name of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) — were developed by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The USVs are essentially just normal boats, but they’ve been retrofitted with CARACaS — Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing — a technology kit that can be plugged into “almost any boat.” Details are slim, but CARACaS is probably very similar to the software and hardware used by any other autonomous or self-driving vehicle — there are probably a bunch of sensors (radar, lidar), networking equipment to talk to other members of the swarm, and some fairly advanced software (artificial intelligence) for keeping the boat in formation.
The USVs will also be able to “detect, deter or destroy attacking adversaries” — but the ONR is quick to note that autonomous firing of weapons would first need to be “initiated by a sailor.” (Presumably the swarm can carry on firing indefinitely after a sailor pushes the big red button, though.)
There are a surprisingly large number of good reasons for the ONR’s development of autonomous swarmboats. For a start, retrofitting means lots of older, smaller boats can be used very effectively. Second, if you’re trying to interdict an enemy vessel, it’s obviously desirable to keep any squishy humans out of the way, so that they don’t get rammed or blown up by a would-be suicide bomber. Third, having a swarm of autonomous boats is very flexible: They can protect a high-value ship, or they can blockade/interdict another ship, or they can scout ahead, or they can provide extra gunfire in combat situations.
US Navy’s swarmboats, as seen via some kind of mission control interface
Like flying drones, the US Navy’s swarmboats can either act autonomously or by remote control. In the video above there’s a fairly small number of vessels being used, but apparently some demonstrations have used up to 13 swarmboats — both acting fully autonomously or via remote control.
Yes, this is the actual logo being used by the ONR for the project
Moving forward, the ONR hopes that USVs will prevent incidents like the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole while it was refueling in Yemen in 2000. The attack was painfully low-tech: A small boat laden with explosives simply sallied up to the side of the ship and exploded, killing 17 and injuring 39 more. Much like a truck bomb, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done against such attacks, except for having better intelligence in the first place. If each US Navy ship had a deployment of swarmboats, though, maybe they would’ve automatically tagged the incoming vessel as a threat and moved to intercept.
Finally, though, I should point out that there is one significant difference between aerial drones and these swarmboats: While UAVs operate on their own, potentially thousands of miles away from mission control, USVs are linked to a nearby ship. I wonder if, in the not too distant future, the US military would like to field a fully autonomous aircraft carrier, loaded up with autonomous reconnoissance craft and stealth bombers…
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