State/National/WorldNews Briefs

Unmanned ‘Swarmboats’ act as guard dogs for warships and harbors

WASHINGTON (LOG NEWS SERVICE) — In a demonstration conducted recently in the lower Chesapeake Bay the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research demonstrated the ability of unmanned patrol boats to protect friendly harbors.

During the demonstration the small and unmanned boats patrolled the harbor, detected intruders and chased them from the area they were protecting with only remote human supervision rather than direct human operation as they performed their missions.

“This demonstration showed some remarkable advances in autonomous capabilities,” Cmdr. Luis Molina, military deputy for ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons Department, said. “While previous work had focused on autonomous protection of high-value ships, this time we were focused on harbor approach defense.”

The autonomy technology being developed by ONR is called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS. The components that make up CARACaS (some are commercial off-the-shelf) are inexpensive compared to the costs of maintaining manned vessels for some of the dull, dirty or dangerous tasks—all of which can be found in the work of harbor approach defense, experts say.

“The U.S. Navy knows our most important asset, without question, is our highly trained military personnel,” Dr. Robert Brizzolara, the program officer at ONR who oversees the effort, said. “The autonomy technology we are developing for our Sailors and Marines is versatile enough that it will assist them in performing many different missions, and it will help keep them safer.”

ONR completed the first major demonstration of CARACaS technology in 2014 on the James River in Virginia. At that time, the transportable kit containing the autonomy package was installed on multiple boats, allowing them to operate in sync with other unmanned vessels, swarming to intercept potential enemy ships and escorting naval warships.

The demonstration held in October built upon the lessons learned from that successful demo. Brizzolara said substantial additional capability has been added to CARACaS since the 2014 demonstration, including the ability for multiple unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) to collaborate on task allocation, development of additional USV behaviors and tactics, and advances in automated vessel classification from imagery.

Unmanned boats were given a large area of open water to patrol during the demonstration. As an unknown vessel entered the area, the group of swarmboats collaboratively determined which patrol boat would quickly approach the unknown vessel, classify it as harmless or suspicious, and communicate with other swarmboats to assist in tracking and trailing the unknown vessel while others continued to patrol the area. During this time the group of swarmboats provided status updates to a human supervisor.

“This technology allows unmanned Navy ships to overwhelm an adversary,” Molina added. “Its sensors and software enable swarming capability, giving naval war fighters a decisive edge.”

 A report from the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research was used in this story.

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