Office of Naval Research Expands Swarming Boat Concept
To protect the nation's ports and waterways, the Office of Naval Research is investing in autonomous unmanned patrol boat technology that can identify and track unknown vessels.
The agency recently demonstrated this capability — which was powered through a system known as the control architecture for robotic agent command and sensing, or CARACaS — during an event called “Swarm2, Mission: Safe Harbor.”
The technology allows “us to do more with less,” said Cmdr. Luis Molina, military deputy for ONR’s sea warfare and weapons department. “These vehicles will allow us to expand our sensing envelopes for our combatants. It will allow us to expand our spheres of influence.”
During the event, ONR equipped four boats from the Navy’s inventory, which are typically manned, with the CARACaS software, said Robert Brizzolara, ONR program manager for the technology. They were then tasked with completing specific missions autonomously.
Unlike remotely controlled boats, autonomous surface vehicles must be able to perceive their environments and know when another ship is in the vicinity, he said during a phone call with defense reporters Dec. 14.
Using CARACaS, the boats employed a sophisticated perception engine, he said. It is composed of a variety of sensors including radars, cameras and processing algorithms to compute data.
“We’ve developed the technology to fuse that perception information across all four of the USVs so they’re seeing a common picture,” Brizzolara said.
The demo — which took place between September and October in the Chesapeake Bay — focused on harbor safety, he said. During the demonstration, a human operator supervised the activity, but did not control the vessels.
The event was a follow on to a demonstration took place in August 2014 on the James River near Fort Eustis, Virginia, he said. During the recent experiment, ONR developed three new features: The ability for the unmanned surface vehicles to collectively work together and recognize new tasks, and then allocate those among themselves; an improved automated classification system; and the integration of an enhanced behavior engine.
“Behavior is a very important aspect of this. It refers to the actual actions that the boat takes in response to what its perception sees,” he said. “An example of an autonomous behavior is a USV that is equipped with CARACaS perceives another vessel with its sensors and then decides to follow it. That simple example is a trail behavior.”
The three key behaviors developed were patrol, track and trail, Brizzolara said.
“The behaviors are very important because they enable the USV to do dynamic missions, missions where the situation is changing,” he said. “As a counter example, if the USV has to execute a fixed search pattern, that’s a scripted mission, the situation is not changing and behaviors are not needed for that.”
The technology offers the Navy a way to affordably patrol harbor waters but it could be used for a variety of other missions, he noted. Installation of CARACaS would be in the tens of thousands of dollars, he said.
ONR plans to host another demonstration but a specific date has not yet been determined.