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The technology gives a glimpse of how the Navy could man and equip itself in the decades ahead. An unmanned seven-meter rigid hulled inflatable boat operates autonomously during an Office of Naval Research-sponsored demonstration of swarm boat technology.
The US Navy recently made a technological breakthrough on the James River in Virginia. For the first time, the service launched a fleet of “swarm boats” against a fake enemy target. It wasn’t the boats that were impressive, but the way they were being operated: There were no sailors on board — the vessels were piloting themselves.
The successful demonstration of swarm boat capabilities doesn’t just signify the development of a cool, new toy for the military. It also gives us a window into how the Navy could man and equip itself and fight in the decades ahead.
During the demonstration, a manned aircraft flying over the river identified a vessel that posed a threat to the capital ship and sent a signal directly to 13 swarm boats below.
The boats sensed their environment, planned their routes and maneuvered — without the assistance of a human operator — toward the danger in a synchronized fashion without hitting any of the dozens of ships and obstacles on the river. The boats’ paths were determined by sensors.
“Each boat was sharing situational awareness information. They were working as a team,” Robert Brizzolara, program manager at the Office of Naval Research, told reporters at the Pentagon last week.
Once the swarm boats got close to the target, they blocked the path between the enemy and the American ship.
Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the chief of naval research, said the swarm boats have the capability to thwart multiple moving vessels if deployed in large numbers. Rear Adm. Klunder envisions using up to 20 swarm boats at a time in tactical situations.
Lethal tools include .50-caliber machine guns and microwave-directed energy weapons. Nonlethal capabilities include the use of overwhelming noise and lights that could debilitate operators of enemy ships.
The autonomous maneuvering was made possible by a device that looks like a small silver box. The technology, which the Office of Naval Research calls Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS, can be installed on almost any boat. Rear Adm. Klunder said it could potentially be put on larger ships, including destroyers.