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The Navy is building fleets of unmanned 'swarmboats' that can overwhelm and confuse enemies

See that unmanned military boat cruising through Chesapeake Bay? That’s a new vessel being created by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) that’s been a breakthrough in autonomous naval missions.

In October, ONR took to Chesapeake Bay to show off its new technology, which uses software, radar, and a myriad of environmental sensors to perform patrol missions with little more than remote human supervision. The Navy’s new “swarmboats” aren’t being developed to replace its sailors and marines, however. Instead, they’re intended to assist in duties that might be too dull or too dangerous.

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The ONR’s most recent demonstration involved a fleet of these ships patrolling a large swath of open water. When an unknown ship entered the designated space, the swarmboats collectively determined which would approach the vessel to check if it was a threat; the approaching swarmboat then communicated with the rest of the swarm to get help in tracking the unknown vessel, trailing it if needed. Other ships continued to patrol the area, and updates were sent continuously to a human supervisor nearby.

“This technology allows unmanned Navy ships to overwhelm an adversary,” ONR Sea Warfare and Weapons Dept. Military Deputy Commander, Luis Molina said in a statement. “Its sensors and software enable swarming capability, giving naval warfighters a decisive edge.”

October’s swarmboat demonstration built upon a 2014 demonstration of the autonomy technology Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS), where the swarmboats were tasked with escorting a Navy warship in Virginia’s James River. “The demonstration showed some remarkable advances in autonomous capabilities,” Molina added. “While previous work had focused on autonomous protection of high-value ships, this time we were focused on harbor approach defense.”

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For future missions, ONR is looking to equip the Navy with a military force of both manned and unmanned systems. ONR will begin testing these swarmboats for use in dangerous missions wherein extra protection is needed for soldiers. The autonomous boats — designed to swarm enemies — are capable of doing that in great numbers at the fraction of a cost it would take a single manned warship, ONR said.