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Navy Will Deploy Swarms of Autonomous Robots to Protect Warships at Sea
By Sandra I. Erwin

Robots in combat are no longer a novelty in the U.S. military. Dangerous jobs such as explosives detection, warzone surveillance and precision-guided airstrikes already have been handed off to robots.

The Navy is taking the technology a step further.

Researchers believe robots are now smart enough that they can be trusted to take on tougher jobs like escorting and protecting billion-dollar warships. Robotic patrol boats could keep sailors out of harm’s way and ease the burden on overworked crews.

In an experiment in August, a team of engineers and naval officers deployed 13 robotic patrol craft on the James River in Virginia, and tested their ability to operate autonomously as escorts of a large U.S. ship, detect the presence of a potentially hostile ship, swarm around it and disable it.

It has taken more than a decade for the Navy to perfect the technology. The quest started 14 years ago when suicide bombers exploded a small boat alongside the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole as it was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden. The explosion ripped a hole in the hull of the ship, killing 17 U.S. sailors.

“If Cole had been supported by autonomous unmanned surface vessels, they could have stopped that attack," said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder.

Swarms of autonomous robots are now a reality in the Navy, Klunder told reporters at the Pentagon.

The demonstration was intended to mimic a routine transit through one of the world’s strategic chokepoints such as the straits of Hormuz or Malacca. The 13 driverless boats — operated either autonomously or by remote control — escorted a high-value Navy ship and, when a simulated enemy vessel was detected, quickly swarmed around the aggressor.

Klunder, a self-proclaimed “sci-fi geek,” hailed the event as a key milestone in the robotic weapons revolution. By substituting sailor-operated patrol boats with driverless ones, crews are less exposed to danger and freed from duties that computers are able to do. It typically takes 40 to 50 sailors to patrol a single destroyer. The robot swarm would be supervised by just one sailor, who would monitor the robots on a computer screen and intervene only if necessary.  

Another bonus for the Navy is that this technology is inexpensive, Klunder said. The Navy already owns thousands of patrol craft — also called rigid-hulled inflatable boats — that cost about $185,000 each. Equipping them with a robotic kit and an electronic brain would add a few thousand dollars each. All the electronics and the sensors are off-the-shelf.

The “secret sauce” in this project, Klunder said, is the software that lets robots share data and maneuver in sync. The technology, developed by the Office of Naval Research, is called CARACAS, an acronym for control architecture for robotic agent command and sensing. It is a kit about the size of a Rubik’s cube that can be installed on boats or aircraft.

Some components of CARACAS were adapted from NASA’s Mars Rover spaceflight program. Participants in the project included NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University-Applied Physics Laboratory and the Naval Surface Warfare Carderock Division. Daniel Wagner Associates and Spatial Integrated Systems are program contractors.

The unmanned patrol boats can be armed with nonlethal weapons such as flashing lights, blaring loudspeakers and high-power microwaves, and with offensive firepower such as .50 caliber machine guns.

Klunder insisted that only a human operator will be able to fire a weapon. A human is always “on the loop” — supervising and ready to take control if needed, he said. The system does not require a human operator to be “in the loop,” or directing every movement of the boat with a toggle switch.

The CARACAS system’s main functions are perception and decision making, explained Robert A. Brizzolara, program manager at the Office of Naval Research. For perception, it uses radar and high-resolution cameras. It applies advanced algorithms to make decisions such as planning routes, and determining course of action and speed. The swarming vessels communicate and coordinate with one another, and can plan their routes in real time.

In the August demonstration, 13 robots successfully identified 30 vessels that were sailing in the area. The electronic brains are designed with backup safety mechanisms. If a boat lost communication with the human overseer, it would automatically stop working, said Brizzolara. Two separate kill switches were set up to disable boats in emergencies.

Still in the works is an “automated target recognition” system that would allow the robots to operate in congested waters and comply with standard maritime rules that all boats must follow to avoid collisions.

The possibilities of this technology are endless, Klunder said. The next step for the Navy is to test a robot swarm in real-world operations. That could happen within the next year, he said. The James River trial included 13 boats, but more could be added. The Coast Guard is eyeing this technology for port security, and civilian industries like oil drillers could use it to protect offshore rigs.

The small brain of a patrol craft could be scaled up for larger platforms, Klunder said. “It is conceivable that large surface ships or unmanned aerial vehicles could one day use similar autonomous control technology.”

If the Navy decides to adopt robots for routine ship patrol duties, it would be a crowning achievement for the Office of Naval Research, which has been a staunch advocate of autonomous weapon systems. ONR in 2012 started a program to build an electronic kit that would convert any military helicopter into a robotic cargo delivery vehicle.

Unmanned systems expert Peter W. Singer said the Navy is moving the technology in the right direction, although far more needs to be done to fully exploit the capabilities of robotic systems.

“The future of military technology at sea, in the air and on the ground is increasingly robotics,” said Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at New America Foundation.

Singer told National Defense he became aware years ago that the Navy was working on swarming technology for unmanned boats. “It's neat stuff,” he said.

Driverless boats have a promising future in commercial shipping, he noted, as there is huge interest in automating cargo and merchant ships to lower personnel costs and also to cut down on accidents, most of which are caused by human error.

Singer worries, however, that the military has been too conservative in its employment of robots. “The pace of progress will be determined more by the human organization side than by the technological capability,” he said.

The Defense Department is cutting research and development budgets for unmanned systems more steeply than other areas, Singer said. This is a sign that unmanned technology continues to threaten established programs, he noted. “There's something odd, strange and not strategic about that, but that's the reality,” Singer said. “There is suspicion from the old guard that is protecting legacy systems.”

A case in point is the Navy’s pursuit of unmanned underwater mini-submarine. These vehicles are viewed as complementary to conventional submarines and there is little appetite to shift submarine duties to autonomous systems. “We have not really pushed forward with swarming in ways that go beyond just being another 'mini torpedo' for the manned submarine,” Singer said. “The Navy is putting new things into old boxes.”

The swarming concept that ONR is pushing is “very powerful,” he said. “A team can do more than the individual parts. That is true with humans and it's true with robots. The cooperation opens up the capabilities of unmanned systems.” The Navy could use them in offensive tactics, he added. “One finds a target, tells everyone else and they figure out how to overcome it. The really powerful thing about a swarm is that you're willing to sacrifice some parts of it to aid the overall cause.”

The concept of robot swarms is not new in military operations. In the early 1980s, Israel flew a bevy of drones over Syria’s air defenses, which forced the Syrians to turn on their radars, thus revealing the location of their missiles, and they had to fire a barrage of expensive missiles to shoot down the drones. “The United States does use drones that way as disposable targets,” said Singer. “But the Navy’s latest efforts could open up new tactics as they becomes more autonomous and cooperative.”

Paul Scharre, an unmanned weapons expert at the Center for a New American Security, has studied the potential military advantages of swarming robots. In a new study to be published this fall, “Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm,” Scharre notes that robots deployed in large numbers allow the military to bring “mass back on the battlefield” as a tactic that proved successful in World War II.

U.S. technology might be qualitatively superior to others, but that may not be sufficient to defeat a smart opponent, Sharre writes. He sees huge benefits in deploying swarms of low-cost platforms. “One of the chief advantages of this strategy is that it can be used to impose costs on adversaries because it forces one’s adversary to counter large numbers of systems.”

Photo Credit: Navy


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