An unmanned 11-meter rigid hulled inflatable boat from Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock operates autonomously during an Office of Naval Research-sponsored demonstration of swarmboat technology on the James River in Newport News, Va. During the demo as many as 13 Navy boats, using the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command Sensing system, operated autonomously or by remote control during escort, intercept and engage scenarios. Credit: John F. Williams/U.S. Navy
As a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, loaded with 60 aircraft and more than 6,000 sailors, heads toward port, it's protected by a group of 10 or more small boats.
The boats move around the ship, scanning for suspicious and potentially hostile vessels coming too close. If they spot a potential adversary, they race toward the intruder, working together to swarm around it and block it from getting any closer.
If necessary, they can destroy an attacking vessel.
What makes this scenario unique is that these small boats are unmanned. No one's driving them or on the look out. No one's manning the machine gun.
The Office of Naval Research has created an autonomous boat system and recently tested up to 13 unmanned boats working together, according to Rear Admiral Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research. "It's not just the fact that we've developed this technology, but we've exercised it," he said.
The Navy expects to officially deploy the autonomous system -- dubbed CARACaS or Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing -- in about a year.
"We all recognize we live in a pretty volatile world," said Klunder. "There are sailors in harm's way trying to avoid conflicts and stabilize a region. We want to make sure that those sailors, those soldiers, are never in a fair fight. We want them to have the most innovative technologies available."
The technology, which uses artificial intelligence, machine perception and distributed data fusion, was successfully demonstrated over two weeks in August on the James River in Virginia.
"This is a huge advance for robotics and, specifically, for object recognition and artificial intelligence implementations," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "These are the smartest robots I have seen. The combination of speed, object recognition and artificial intelligence is very, very impressive."
The fact that a computer system can distinguish a potentially suspicious boat from any other vessel is a huge advance.
"It is very difficult to determine a threat versus friendly because there could be nuances in the way the boat moves, the way it turns, its speed, the way it reacts to the swarming boats, the people on deck, what they're carrying and the way they are acting," added Moorhead.
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