• An unmanned boat from Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock operates autonomously during a demonstration of swarmboat technology being developed by the Office of Naval Research.
     An unmanned boat from Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock operates autonomously during a demonstration of swarmboat technology being developed by the Office of Naval Research.

U.S. Navy Developing Fleet of Autonomous 'Guard Dogs'

October 15, 2014
By Sandra Jontz
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With its developing fleet of autonomous “guard dogs,” the U.S. Navy is becoming more lethal and protective using the same technology.

The sea service is capitalizing on a first-of-its-kind autonomous technology, with software originally developed by NASA for the Mars Rover, which can transform just about any surface vessel into an unmanned platform able to protect other ships or “swarm” hostile vessels, officials say.

Researchers from the Office of Naval Research recently tested this technology, called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS)—a sensor and software kit that can be installed on just about any vessel making it autonomous. (Can't remember the acronym? Just think capital of Venezuela)

“When we look at autonomous swarm, we’re not talking about a single vessel. We’re talking about multiple, multiple vessels that can be in a defensive posture. And then when called upon can become offensive, surround an adversary, let them know ‘you are coming no closer to our ship,’” Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, USN, chief of naval research, says in a video touting the formidable technology.

CARACaS-equipped vessels “sense” their environments to detect and react to perceived threats from other vessels. They can form a no-go zone around Navy assets or be set up to attack. The technology allows them to operate in sync with other unmanned vessels, avoiding collisions. The swarmboat technology of the unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) could be used in defensive missions, which might have been beneficial, for example, in protecting the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in 2000 from a suicide attack when a small boat approached and detonated near the destroyer as it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden.

“While the attack on Cole was not the only motivation for developing autonomous swarm capability, it certainly is front and center in our minds and hearts,” Adm. Klunder says. “If [the] Cole had been supported by autonomous USVs, they could have stopped that attack long before it got close to our brave men and women on board.” The attack on the USS Cole killed 17 sailors and wounded 39.

During recent demonstrations of the CARACaS technology in Virginia, as many as 13 Navy boats operated together using either autonomous or remote control technology to escort a U.S. Navy ship and then speed into action and swarm a perceived threat.

“Something like this technology is very useful when you want to have assets out there that can patrol around you, almost like guard dogs, and they can give the [commanding officer] of that ship the intent of another boat that’s coming in,” says Rick Simon, director of robotics for Spatial Integrated Systems Inc.

The Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence scientists have been studying swarm intelligence to discover ways of controlling large numbers of unmanned systems. 

“This networking unmanned platforms demonstration was a cost-effective way to integrate many small, cheap and autonomous capabilities that can significantly improve our warfighting advantage,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, USN, says in a statement.

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