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Autonomous Navy Patrol Boats

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By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

The U.S. Navy could have autonomous patrol boats protecting warships through swarming maneuvers or attacking incoming small-surface threats like the one on the U.S.S. Cole within one year. The terrorist attack on the Cole in 2000 killed 17 sailors and injured 39.

Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, said of a trial run last month: “I can tell you the systems we just put out on the water would’ve prevented the Cole.”

But the Cole is not the only thing in mind. This program will without a doubt contribute to the future naval warfare as well as other types of warfare. The autonomous swarm technology mimics in part the behavior of nature’s insect swarms such as bees or wasps that break out when threatened to defend the nest and neutralize, distract or dissuade the attacker before they can damage or destroy the hive.

Robert Brizzolara is the program manager, working out the Office of Naval Research. In August he demonstrated the application of swarm technology in protecting navy vessels in the James River, Virginia. There were thirteen drone boats on protective detail surrounded a single vessel and eight broke off when threatened and swarmed around the threat.

The autonomous boats can also encircle or block the oncoming vessel from reaching its target as well. A .50 caliber machine gun could be mounted to the boats with a human operator. The decision to use lethal force is still under human control.

The idea is simple but swarm robotics is something that has many applications within the military and has been in testing and development for years. The biggest challenges to date have been in the areas of drone coordination and the autonomous programing.

The technology is a cost saver, allowing transportable kits to work with existing patrol boats deployed on warships at sea for only $2,000 a piece.

Admiral Kundler hopes to see the technology in service within one year.

In the future he noted that “this is something that you might find not only just on our naval vessels, we could certainly see this utilized to protect merchant vessels, to protect ports and harbors, used also to protect offshore oil rigs.”

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