Navy’s Swarming Drone Boats Conduct Independent Missions

Four unmanned remotely operated high-speed maneuvering surface targets move to their blocking positions during an Office of Naval Research-sponsored demonstration of autonomous swarmboat technology on the James River in Newport News, Va. During the demonstration as many as 13 Navy boats, using an Office of Naval Research-sponsored system called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command Sensing), operated autonomously or by remote control during escort, intercept and engage scenarios. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Paul Kotara/Released)Four unmanned remotely operated high-speed maneuvering surface targets move to their blocking positions during an Office of Naval Research-sponsored demonstration of autonomous swarmboat technology on the James River in Newport News, Va. During the demonstration as many as 13 Navy boats, using an Office of Naval Research-sponsored system called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command Sensing), operated autonomously or by remote control during escort, intercept and engage scenarios. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Paul Kotara/Released)

Remotely programmed boats that swarm to their objective just got closer to being a future warfighting reality.

In a recent demonstration that took place in the lower Chesapeake Bay, a swarm of rigid-hull inflatable boats, or RHIBs, and other small boats were takes with performing patrol missions autonomously, with remote human direction but no direct supervision, according to a news release from the Office of Naval Research.

During the demonstration, officials highlighted new capabilities that allow multiple boats to collaborate and take on tasks together, as well as features that further develop the boats’ behaviors and tactics. The swarm of surface boats were allowed to patrol a large area of open water, according to the release. When unknown ships entered the area, the group of boats would task one of the patrol boats with approaching the ship, quickly classify it as harmless or a potential threat, and communicate with the other boats to track the vessel as it continued onward, if it was determined necessary to do so, officials said.

All the while, the unmanned boats were providing updates to a remote human supervisor.
“This technology allows unmanned Navy ships to overwhelm an adversary,” Cmdr. Luis Molina, military deputy for ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons Dept, said in a statement.“ Its sensors and software enable swarming capability, giving naval warfighters a decisive edge.”

For these boats, being able to operate with a higher level of independence could make them suitable for harbor approach defense, including patrolling and repulsion of enemy maritime threats, including surface craft and submarines. Being able to equip these unmanned craft for harbor defense would make the task lest costly and dangerous, officials said in the release.

ONR is developing a technology called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, according to the release. The technology, a portable autonomy package, was first demonstrated on boats in 2014, allowing them to synch up and coordinate with other unmanned craft for escort and intercept operations.

“The U.S. Navy knows our most important asset, without question, is our highly trained military personnel,” Dr. Robert Brizzolara, the program officer at ONR overseeing swarmboat experimentation, said in a statement. “The autonomy technology we are developing for our Sailors and Marines is versatile enough that it will assist them in performing many different missions, and it will help keep them safer.”

The boats may next be tasked with taking on dangerous missions that would have previously risked the lives of human warfighters, according to the release.

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Hope Hodge Seck
Hope Hodge Seck is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.