The world recently watched with bated breath as China captured a U.S. submarine drone in the hotly contested area of The South China Sea. Fortunately, the incident was resolved with little more than another war of words.
However, the expansion of drone use at sea is a topic that should not be forgotten too quickly.
As I have covered previously, the United States and allied nations have begun to ramp up massive coordination of sea-based drone capability that can merge with airborne and land autonomous vehicles into a full-spectrum matrix of war. This was most evident with the recent military drill known as Unmanned Warrior 2016, the largest of its kind to date.
But there is much more to come.
Shortly after Unmanned Warrior, the Pentagon announced plans to invest billions of dollars into an “undersea drone network” that, according to a report in the Washington Post could contain the following capabilities:
- (S)ervice stations underwater, similar to highway rest stops. “A place where you can gas up or charge your underwater vehicles, transfer data and maybe store some data,” said Frank Herr, the head of the ONR’s ocean battlespace sensing department.
- From General Dynamics: 16-foot-long Bluefin-21 vehicle is capable of launching what the company calls “micro UUVs,” known as SandSharks, that weigh only about 15 pounds. The SandSharks could scan an enemy shoreline and pop up to the surface to relay data to aircraft flying overhead. The Bluefin-21 could even launch a tube that goes to the surface, sticks up like a large straw and then shoots out an unmanned aerial vehicle like a spitball.
- (DARPA) has a plan to plant 15-foot-tall pods across the ocean floor that could sit there for years waiting to be awakened. When they received a signal, they would float to the surface and release aerial drones, which could perform surveillance over shorelines.
- Raytheon … is working on a torpedo that instead of blowing things up would be the military’s eyes and ears underwater, scouting for mines or enemy submarines, mapping the ocean floor and measuring currents.
However, to this point, the military has been careful to reinforce that these systems, though robotic and possessing some level of autonomy, would ultimately receive their prime directive by a human operator. A new report in Defense One indicates that even that slippery slope has been abandoned for a full rush downhill into a Terminator-level dystopia.
The newest upgrade from the U.S. Navy will permit the boats themselves to decide what to attack.
ONR [Office of Naval Research]first demonstrated the swarm boats in 2014, sending 13 robot boats out on Virginia’s James River to protect a large, high-value ship. The experiment proved that the robots could move independently of one another yet coordinate well enough to swarm a threatening vessel and escort it away from a friendly one. It was a key demonstration of ONR’s Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS system, which includes radar and infrared sensors and which can be retrofitted to a variety of vessels. (ONR has been working mostly with small inflatable boats, but has tested it on four types of craft.) But a human had to tell the robots which vessel to swarm.
That has changed. A Sept. 6-Oct. 3 test in the lower Chesapeake Bay demonstrated several new capabilities that will “open up the aperture” for more missions, said ONR program manager Robert Brizzolara.
One was “enhanced vessel classification,” the boats’ ability to separate friend from foe, using images fed into CARACaS. No small task, this advance required new research and development into target classification.
“We looked at a relatively large number of automated target recognition approaches…taking algorithms for [automated target recognition] and using them in our maritime environment was not straightforward,” said Brizzolara. “In the end, we finally came up with an approach that works very well.”
But the boats can also evaluate potential threats based on their behaviors; for example, taking note of how close a suspect vessel is getting to a port, ship, or other asset. This capability, which was not demonstrated in the recent tests, allows new images and behaviors to be entered into the boats’ threat library.
The recent experiment did demonstrate new tactical actions that the robot boats can use to handle a rapidly changing situation. For instance, the swarm can now assign different drones to trail or track different enemy boats. In the 2014 demonstration, they were much less coordinated; one threatening vessel might attract the entire swarm, opening up an opportunity for another.
You can view the demonstration video from Swarm 2 – Mission: Safe Harbor below. It is a slick presentation that gives a new overview of how the military values drone warfare and its place in future security. It also clearly shows how fast this technology has progressed since its formal introduction in 2014.
A final parenthetical note: you’ll hear Commander Molina at the end of the video mention the introduction of “autonomous vehicles driving the roads” – it’s not a stretch to imagine that these swarm systems could one day soon also be used to create swarm police capability.
The sky is the limit on what autonomous vessels can do for our force. – Commander Luis Molina, ONR Sea Warfare and Weapons Department
This is really a force muliplier… – Captain Robert Sepek, Commodore Coastal Riverine Group 2, Officer of Tactical Command.
The development of this technology continues to create a global drone arms race that is much cheaper and easier to field than nuclear weapons. This fact has led to an unresolved debate about “killer robots” and what limits, if any, should be internationally imposed.
Image Credit: usnavyresearch/YouTube