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The Navy’s Newest Toy Is a Terrifying Sharkbeast from Hell

​Last Thursday, just a day after releasing video of their new laser guns in action, the US Navy tested the frickin' sharks upon whose heads they might theoretically mount them.

Photo courtesy Edward Guttierrez/US Navy

Last Thursday, just a day after releasing video of their new laser guns in action, the US Navy tested the frickin' sharks upon whose heads they might theoretically mount them.

These sharks aren't some new addition to the Navy's already sizeable menagerie of dolphins and sea lions trained to sweep the seas for mines and swoop in on those swimming too close to bases. Ominously christened Ghost Swimmers, they are five-foot-long, 100-pound robot sharks (well, they're meant to be Bluefin tuna, but the visual difference is lost on anyone but marine biologists and longshoremen). And they're part of the Navy's Silent NEMO project (so named, presumably, as part of the War on Childhood Innocence), which aims to fill the oceans with unmanned underwater drones disguised as fish and other sea critters.


The joystick-controlled Ghost Swimmer tested last week is right now intended for use as an unmanned sensor system to gather data on tides, waves, and weather. But this conservative deployment belies the military's clear intention to someday use the devices in the same way we use aerial drones: surveillance and other stealth operations. Except underwater. Developed by Boston Engineering's Advanced Systems Group, a military robot contractor, the robot's fishy form isn't just a matter of disguise. It also mimics the mechanical swimming motions of a fish, which are far more efficient than most ships' propulsion systems, giving these drones of the future a leg-up in speed and mobility as well.

Undersea drones have been in use for at least 57 years. As of 2013, your average consumer could purchase a basic unmanned underwater vehicle, capable of diving about 325 feet underwater, for just $900. And as of this year, the US military has already deployed some of its numerous recon and mine detection drones like the long tubes that are the Bluefin-21 and Knifefish robots in active duty and high profile missions, such as the search for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. But the Ghost Swimmer is part of a more recent movement to develop more autonomous, versatile, and tactically superior drones based on animal designs.

Although mock-ups of the Ghost Swimmer have been around for at least half a decade now, this animal-inspired line of underwater drones started rolling out hard and heavy back around 2012. That year, researchers unveiled the Robojelly, two silicon globs connected by synthetic muscles that could power itself on sea water and mimic the motions of jellyfish to sail through the ocean innocuously or hover close to enemy positions. A year later, we got word of a creepily undulating eel-inspired drone as well.

These new drones aim to help phase out the government's reliance on real animals and extremely expensive manned underwater vehicles, and through their innovative form to give the US a leg up against the dozens of other nations with proactive submarine drone programs. But the difficulties of communicating with devices underwater, where radio signals don't work as well, have limited the rollout of these and other more advanced (but less animalistic) new drones. However the Navy hopes that a host of new and well-funded programs designed to overcome these networking and communication issues will help to see the rollout of a wide array of highly functional and multi-use drones by the end of the next decade.

Yet as terrifying as the notion of swarms of underwater fish drones may be, the Ghost Swimmer and Robojelly are far from the most nightmarish and potentially apocalyptic robots the government and its private-sector chums have cooked up in recent years. About a year ago, Google's acquisition of military contractor Boston Dynamics highlighted its zoo of terrestrial doom bots: From the near-Terminator Atlas to the skittering tank that is Big Dog to the super-fast Cheetah. With creepy animal robots growing increasing militarized and autonomous at sea and on land, it feels like we're inching closer and closer to a very Battlestar Galactica future.

The Navy may encounter one flaw in its Ghost Swimmer program, though. While copying the motion of a fish might be clever for mechanics and speed, disguising their vehicle as a Bluefin tuna fish won't do much good in just a few years, given that species' recently announced march to extinction. In fact, if the predictions of a group of marine scientists back in 2006 were right, within the next few decades there'll be almost no marine life left in the seas and the whole stealth angle of copying animal forms will evaporate as we're left with a very mechanized future sea.

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