NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Self-guided unmanned patrol boats that can leave the ships they're protecting and swarm and attack potential threats on the water could join the Navy's fleet within a year, defense officials say, adding the new technology could one day help stop attacks like the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen.
The Arlington-based Office of Naval Research said it successfully demonstrated the autonomous swarm boat technology over two weeks in August on the James River near Fort Eustis in Virginia — not far from one of the Navy's largest fleet concentration areas. The Navy simulated a transit through a strait, just like its ships routinely do through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.
In the demonstrations, as many as 13 small unmanned patrol boats were escorting a high-value Navy ship. Then as many as eight of the self-guided vessels broke off and swarmed around a threat when a ship playing the part of an enemy vessel was detected.
Robert Brizzolara, program manager at the Office of Naval Research, said that the boats decide for themselves what movements to make once they're alerted to a threat and work together to encircle or block the path of an opposing vessel, depending on that vessel's movements and those of other vessels in the area.
The rigid-hull inflatable patrol boats can also fire .50 caliber machine guns if called upon to do so. However, a human will always be the one to make the decision to use lethal force, officials said. A sailor on a command ship would be in charge of each of the unmanned boats and could also take control over any of the boats at any moment. If communication between the unmanned boats and the sailor overseeing them was ever broken, the boat would automatically shut down.
"I never want to see the USS Cole happen again," said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, speaking about the attack by a small boat with explosives that killed 17 sailors and injured 39. "I can tell you the systems we just put out on the water would've prevented the Cole."
Brizzolara said the technology allows sailors who would ordinarily be manning those boats to stay out of harm's way while still allowing the vessels to deter, damage or destroy enemy vessels.
Officials said while the Cole bombing was not the sole inspiration for the program, it was a significant one. Researchers have been working on the technology for about a decade. The kit, which can be placed on any small vessel and includes sensors and radar that tells it what's happening in the area. For decision-making, advanced algorithms help the boat plan its route and determine its course of action and speed.
Klunder said that manpower can sometimes be an issue as to why more patrol boats aren't escorting larger ships, and that potential enemies may try to outnumber those boats. He said the kits could put more protective boats in the water, freeing up sailors to do their jobs back on ship.
"Frankly, we've got a lot of instances where our sailors have to go through this high-value protection job when they should be back manning stations on the ship," Klunder said. "We've really put our sailors back where they need to be anyway, which is back manning our combat systems, manning our weapons systems, steering our ships."
Klunder said the technology should be rolled out to fleet commanders within a year. He said the parts for the small, transportable kit cost about $2,000 and can be applied to existing patrol boats, which are already prevalent at Navy installations and are aboard many large warships.
The Navy said some of the system's components were adapted for from technology originally developed by NASA for the Mars Rover spaceflight programs. What made the August demonstration so important is that it showed that numerous boats could coordinate with each other, Klunder noted. He said it's the first time the technology has ever been employed with more than one or two boats.
In the future, the technology could be applied to unmanned aerial vehicles, too. Klunder also said there's a potential for the technology to be used elsewhere: "This is something that you might find not only just on our naval vessels, we could certainly see this utilized to protect merchant vessels, to protect ports and harbors, used also to protect offshore oil rigs."
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis