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In a recent US Navy autonomous swarm boat demonstration, waterborne robots collaborated to identify, surround, and harass an enemy vessel. The boats can identify a potential enemy vessel and execute operational maneuvers to defeat a wide variety of threats, the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) announced recently.

Swarming tactics are advocated by some war theorists as the next step in the evolution of military doctrine. Using algorithms, battlefield formations of simple robots could replicate the swarming behaviors of bees or ants, with major strategic benefits. While elements of swarming tactics have been employed by armies for thousands of years, swarms of automated machines could add a new dimension to the conduct of war, according to

According to, the navy ONR had first demonstrated the swarm boats already in 2014, sending 13 robot boats out to protect a large, high-value ship. The experiment proved that the robots could move independently in separate, yet coordinate well enough to swarm a threatening vessel and escort it away from a friendly one, but a human had to tell the robots which vessel to swarm.

Here come the news: that’s not the case anymore. A recent test demonstrated several new capabilities that will enable for more missions, said ONR program manager Robert Brizzolara. One was “enhanced vessel classification” – the ability of the boats to separate friend from foe, using images. No small task, this advance required new research and development into target classification.

“We looked at a relatively large number of automated target recognition approaches.. taking algorithms and using them in our maritime environment was not straightforward,” said Brizzolara. “In the end, we finally came up with an approach that works”.

But the boats can also evaluate potential threats based on their behaviors; for example, taking note of how close a suspect vessel is getting to a port, ship, or another asset. This capability allows new images and behaviors to be entered into the boats’ threat library.

“The co-operative decision making is a high technical degree of difficulty, very challenging technical problem,” Brizzolara says in a video that ONR provided to media.

The demonstration comes as naval tensions around the world are rising after an Iranian vessel passed within 100 yards of a U.S.warship on Sept. 6.