The U.S. Navy has reported a technological breakthrough in so-called swarming operations involving unmanned boats, officials said.
In a recent exercise on the James River near Fort Eustis, Virginia, the service experimented with the NASA-inspired technology using 13 unmanned patrol boats. At the sight of a simulated enemy ship, some of the self-guided vessels broke from escorting a larger boat and swarmed the perceived opponent, effectively blocking the ship before it became a threat to the higher-value boat.
The concept is designed to thwart attacks like the one against the USS Cole in October 2000, when a suicide bomber affiliated with the al-Qaeda terrorist group steered a small craft into the port side of the guided-missile destroyer while it was docked in the port of Aden, Yemen, to refuel. The explosion blew a hole in the hull of the ship, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39 more.
"If we had this capability there on that day, I'm sure it would have saved that ship," Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, said in a recent teleconference with reporters. "We don't ever want to see that happen again."
The Navy plans to test the technology more rigorously in an operational exercise within a year and eventually deploy it throughout the fleet "to save ships, to protect harbors, to protect ports," he added.
The electronic systems fit into the palm of a hand and, for a cost of a few thousand dollars per vessel, can be installed small boats such as rigid-hull inflatable patrol craft -- the type used in the recent test -- and bigger boats such as amphibious assault vehicles, Klunder said. They can also be configured to fire .50-caliber machine guns from the patrol boats, he said.
"We have every intention of using those unmanned systems to enable our sailors to engage a threat and destroy it, if necessary," Klunder said. "There is always a human in the loop in the designation of the target."
For example, if communication links were lost with the operator, the boats would go dead in the water, he said.
The swarming technology is based on the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) system developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of a project to allow robotic vehicles to communicate with each other, according to a report by www.greencarcongress.com.
The system's so-called perception engine consists of a 360-degree electro-optical system with automated targeted recognition platform called the Contact Detection and Analysis System (CDAS); a stereo electro-optical infrared (EOIR) system; a radar and automatic identification system (AIS); and a sensor data fusion engine, the report states.
While the technology could be adapted for any type of vehicle -- boats, ground vehicles, even aircraft -- it could be used by the Navy to free up more sailors from having to do dangerous, high-value protection missions and focus more on manning combat systems on ships, Klunder said.
It also has potential applications in the civilian sector such as providing security to merchant ships, ports and harbors, and offshore oil rigs, he said.
Here's a video of the swarming in action: