Robots are no strangers to warfare nowadays. They are regularly used for dangerous battlefield jobs such as surveillance, explosives detection, and air strikes, and, as VICE News reported last week, they are now even used to hunt naval mines from the air. Their utility seemingly knows no bounds, and the US Navy has now revealed a plan that seemingly takes the technology even further into the future.
On Sunday, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) announced the addition of "drone gunboats" to the US military's growing family of militarized robots. Developed using existing NASA technology, the robo-boats could be deployed within the year to protect bigger ships or to swarm an enemy with kamikaze-like coordinated attacks.
The program was partly prompted by the 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole by al Qaeda. In the attack, suicide bombers drove a boat laden with explosives into the hull of the guided-missile destroyer as it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 US sailors.
Robert Brizzarola, head of the drone boat program, told reporters Sunday that robot technology will allow US Navy personnel to more rapidly respond to dangerous situations with reduced risk to human lives.
"It will remove our sailors and marines from many dangerous situations — for instance when they need to approach hostile or suspicious vessels," Brizzarola said.
Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, Chief of Naval Research, added, "If Cole had been supported by autonomous unmanned surface vessels, they could have stopped that attack."
Experiments using the new technology have already been successful.
Thirteen unmanned AI-guided vessels completed a successful test mission on the James River in Virginia in August when they escorted and protected the Relentless, a much bigger ship. A single controller in charge of the robotic fleet was located on the larger vessel.
Video of the autonomous swarm demonstration via U.S. Navy Research YouTube.
When a boat designated as hostile appeared on the far side of the river during the test mission, eight of the robo-boats, which can be equipped with machine guns, took off in formation and surrounded the target ship while others stayed behind to guard the valuable mothership.
"I know if I was the actual target, it would be pretty intimidating to see five boats rushing at you," said Sam Calabrese, the pilot for the test mission's hostile target ship.
Beyond potentially saving lives, the technology could also save money by reducing the number of personnel required for missions. While it usually takes around 50 people to patrol with a destroyer ship, the robot fleet can be controlled by just one person.
The software that the drone boats use is also relatively cheap, costing a mere $2,000 per boat to install. The program is known as CARACAS — an acronym for Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing — and it was adapted from NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover.
But the potential for the boats to perform tactical maneuvers that would be impossible for traditional naval fleets is what has developers and military geeks so excited.
"Think about it as replicating the functions that a human boat pilot would do. We've taken that capability and extended it to multiple units operating together… within that, we've designed team behaviors," Brizzarola said.
Peter W. Singer, an unmanned systems expert and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, also extolled the virtues of unmanned team operations to National Defense Magazine.
"A team can do more than the individual parts. That is true with humans and it's true with robots," Singer said. He added that "the really powerful thing about a swarm is that you're willing to sacrifice some parts of it to aid the overall cause."
Klunder told reporters at the Pentagon that humans will not disappear altogether from the naval battle equation, explaining that humans will make the final decisions on firing weapons, and that kill switches are built into the robo-boats. If a drone boat were to lose communication with its human operator, it would automatically stop working.
But the technology also reportedly has sophisticated perception and decision-making functions that signal a departure from the way aerial drones are currently operated. With aerial drones, humans control the machines remotely through an interface that resembles something that might be found in a computer game. The boats are smarter than that.
"We're not talking about people having to drive with toggle switches," said Klunder. He referred to the combination of relatively cheap unmanned boats and tactical swarm opportunities as a "secret sauce" for naval warfare.
The CARACAS software uses radar and high-resolution cameras for perception. Algorithms make decisions about routes, course of action, and speed. The boats communicate and coordinate with each other to swarm and plan attacks or defenses in real time.
An "automated target recognition" system that would allow the robots to operate in busy waters and comply with standard maritime rules is still under development.
The push to develop unmanned, weaponized robo-boats is seemingly the evolution of more primitive tactics that have been used to minimize the risk to humans in battle for centuries. Animals — not robots — have historically been sacrificed in war, as evidenced by Russia's bomb dogs from World War II, suicide bomber donkeys, and Iran's fabled torpedo dolphins.
Though the technology is developing rapidly, Singer suggests it could still be suppressed by skeptics in the military.
"There is suspicion from the old guard that is protecting legacy systems," Singer said. "There's something odd, strange, and not strategic about that, but that's the reality."
But the commercial sector is keen to also get involved, and the ONR has suggested that the robo-boats could be useful to protect oil rigs, merchant vessels, or even automate trading sea routes.
Follow Olivia Crellin on Twitter: @OliviaCrellin