In October 2000, the USS Cole, refueling in a Yemeni port, was damaged, 17 American sailors were killed and 39 were injured when it was bombed in a suicide attack made in a small craft that simply drew up beside the ship.
The Navy hope the new autonomous system will prevent such an attack from happening again.
"If we'd had this capability there on that day, we would have saved that ship," said Klunder. "We don't want to ever see that again. We want to save sailors' lives. We want to save sailors and ports and ships."
A Mars-based autonomous system
Work on the CARACaS system, which could one day be adapted for underwater, ground and aerial vehicles, began in 2004 as an applied research program, with scientists looking initially to create an autonomous system to operate a single boat.
"At that time it was a huge technical challenge," Robert Brizzolara, program manager for the Office of Naval Research, said. "I wasn't thinking at the time about group or team operations. It wasn't really until 2007 or 2008 that I actually started doing tech development for group or team operations."
To get going, Brizzolara and his team began by using autonomous control technology that NASA developed for the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit, both launched in 2003. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with Johns Hopkins University and the Naval Surface Warfare Center, joined the Office of Naval Research team.
The autonomy software for the rovers needed a lot of adaptation -- notably because the rovers move slowly over a distant and dangerous ground terrain while the boats need to move at high speeds over water to intercept, block or swarm around suspicious craft.
"Thinking about the difference between a boat and the Mars rovers -- the speed and the environments they operate in -- it was a significant amount of work to adapt the Mars rover system to one that can operate a boat," said Brizzolara. "They're such different vehicles. The control system for the boat needs to respond much, much more quickly."
The CARACaS system was developed around two main points of emphasis, he explained.
First, the control system needs to use cameras, radar and sensors to perceive other vessels, the shoreline and anything else that needs to be avoided or monitored.
Second, the boats need to plan their movements and their reactions to suspicious vessels or objects in the water.
If five boats are working together, for instance, all five will share the information they're picking up from their own radar and sensors with each other. That means each boat has information from all the others about they're "seeing," as well as each one's position, speed and actions.
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