In mid-August, 13 semi-autonomous unmanned patrol boats, rigid-hulled inflatables armed with .50 caliber machine guns and microwave-transmitters, escorted a larger control ship down the James River near the Naval Station at Norfolk. The patrol boats were controlled by a single operator on the Relentless as they performed tests to confirm the viability of robotic warships to protect their charge, intercept opposing forces and operate in a real environment.
The patrol boats, tasked with protecting a ship, can ‘swarm’ a target that comes too close, ignores warnings or acts in a hostile manner. At this point, the only thing the patrol boats cannot do on their own is fire their weapons.
The heart of the robotic boat is a small device that costs about $2,000. This small, portable kit can be retrofitted into existing patrol boats at Navy installations or aboard larger warships. The successful tests mean that with existing technology, autonomous patrol boats can be deployed within months.
Although superficially similar to drones, the patrol boats are much less manpower intensive. Where a drone requires two operators, a pilot and sensors operator, multiple semi-autonomous patrol boats can be controlled by one person. The primary difference being that the patrol boats are robots programmed to defend and protect their charges while drones are simply unmanned aircraft.
“Think about it as replicating the functions that a human boat pilot would do. We’ve taken that capability and extended it to multiple [unmanned surface vehicles] operating together… within that, we’ve designed team behaviors,” said Robert Brizzolara, the manager of the SWARM program for Office of Naval Research (ONR).
The technology used to control the swarm behavior of the patrol boats was originally developed for the Mars Rover, but has been adapted for the Navy by the ONR.
“We’ve really put our sailors back where they need to be anyway, which is back manning our combat systems, manning our weapons systems, steering our ships,” Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, said, “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.”
Technological developments to prevent another attack like the one on the USS Cole (DDG-67) in 2000, or to thwart small-boat attacks, whether suicide or not, are to be lauded. Although this is a step towards completely independent war machines, the semi-autonomous nature of the robotic controls mean that the order to fire has to come from a live person.
“I never want to see the USS Cole happen again,” continued Klunder, speaking about the attack by a small boat packed with explosives that killed 17 sailors and injured 39 on that warship. “I can tell you the systems we just put out on the water would’ve prevented the Cole.”
Any system designed to protect our assets while minimizing the harm that our sailors are exposed to should be explored. Making the weapons-free order controlled by a person keeps this from being one step removed from a sci-fi nightmare.
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