Navy researchers have achieved a breakthrough in autonomous technology, developing a “swarming” system that employs multiple unmanned boats working together to escort ships, patrol harbors or confront adversaries.
Developed by the Office of Naval Research, the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS, system can, for the cost of several thousand dollars, turn just about any boat into an unmanned vessel, according to Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of Naval Research.
During a two-week demonstration in August, as many as 13 patrol boats and other vehicles outfitted with the CARACaS sensor and software kit worked in concert—either autonomously or by remote—on the James River in Virginia, escorting a high-value vessel (in this case, the researchers’ ship, the Relentless), which is and then surrounding a mock enemy ship when it appeared. Although the purpose was to demonstrate the boats’ ability to swarm, boats operated by remote could have fired on the intruding ship as well, Klunder said during a recent conference call with reporters.
The Navy sees a lot of advantages in having “swarmboats.” They’re cheaper than manned boats, and in addition to keeping sailors out of harm’s way, they keep sailors who otherwise would be sent out on patrol from being pulled away from their assigned jobs aboard ship. And the kits can take advantage of smaller boats already aboard cruisers, destroyer and carriers, without the need to buy new vessels.
“We think this is extremely effective and extremely affordable,” Klunder said. Boats can be outfitted with payloads ranging from non-lethal to lethal, and while the James River demonstration involved 13 boats, he said as many as 20 or 30 could be deployed as a unit, controlled by a single operator.