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More on US Navy’s Autonomous Swarmboats

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Autonomous Swarmboats: The Road to CARACaS

(Source: US Navy; issued Oct 15, 2014)

By Dr. Robert A. Brizzolara

An unmanned 11-meter rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) from Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock operates autonomously during an Office of Naval Research (ONR) sponsored Swarm demonstration held on the James River in Newport News, Va., in August. (US Navy photo)

In the not-so-distant past, scientific research that started here on Earth often ended up being used in spaceships and other craft among the planets and stars. In the case of the Navy’s newest breakthrough technology, however, it was science from NASA used in the Mars Rover space flights that ultimately put Sailors and Marines on the road to CARACaS.

CARACaS, in this case, stands for Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing. In essence, CARACaS is the latest, most intriguing advance in unmanned, autonomous capability for the U.S. Navy.

CARACaS is a first-of-its-kind technology that allows Navy vessels to autonomously “swarm” on adversaries. The combination of software and hardware — including radar and electro-optical/infra-red sensors — can be put into a transportable kit and installed on almost any boat, allowing it to become an unmanned surface vehicle, or USV.

With the kits installed, multiple USVs can move in sync or on their own; choose their own routes together or individually; escort ships; protect ports; and deter, damage or destroy hostile vessels on the water.

Here at the Office of Naval Research, we’ve been working to develop this technology for more than a decade. It hasn’t been easy (good things seldom are), but with untiring efforts from partners across the U.S. Navy, academia and industry, we achieved an historic first this August: We put CARACaS kits on multiple USVs, and successfully demonstrated the new capability of autonomous swarming — both in escorting a vessel from the fleet, and in showing the ability to engage a designated-hostile craft.

In the big picture, CARACaS represents a new frontier in autonomy, and opens up new horizons in naval operations. Imagine in the future if every fleet in the U.S. Navy had a regular presence of autonomous craft at every port, protecting ships and Sailors, and providing naval commanders with additional strategic resources.

Certainly the ability to use autonomous swarmboats gives commanders a host of new options in how to address surface threats, both in the littorals and on the high seas. And since it uses already existing craft, while also decreasing manning requirements, this technology represents significant cost savings.

Most important, it offers new safeguards for our Sailors and Marines. An enemy vessel speeding toward a destroyer, for instance, could be stopped by unmanned craft acting as (in essence) guard dogs, well before it got near enough to self-detonate or otherwise attack the manned Navy vessel. Our people are our most important priority, and autonomous swarm puts that maxim front and center.

As we remember the October 2000 attack on USS Cole (DDG 67), technology advances like CARACaS take on an even greater importance for all Americans.

Some have asked about the potential use of live fire from the autonomous craft, with pop culture references to “Terminator” or “Robocop.” While the focus of the recent demo did not involve testing weapons fire from an autonomous swarmboat, the Navy has stated clearly: Live fire from any autonomous vessel will always be decided, authorized, targeted and controlled by a supervising Sailor or Marine.

While science fiction may inspire different perspectives on autonomy, ONR’s job is to explore the realm of the possible, in order to give our warfighters every advantage (and we do that with only about 1 percent of the Department of the Navy’s budget). As the Chief of Naval Research has said: We never want to see our Sailors and Marines in a “fair fight.” There’s no question that autonomy and unmanned systems are here to stay, and growing in importance for our operational capabilities. Don’t doubt for a minute that our adversaries are working to advance their own autonomous systems. Technology like CARACaS will support our warriors as they keep this country safe, both at home and around the world.

It took a long time for us to reach CARACaS. Now we’re well on the way to providing our Sailors and Marines with a new and powerful tool to help them accomplish their mission.

Dr. Robert A. Brizzolara, program manager for the Sea Platforms and Weapons Division at the Office of Naval Research, leads the CARACaS research program.