Military leaders are increasingly using autonomous drones, robots and platforms to assess, defend and engage targets around the world.


The US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) recently showed off the progress it’s making in the area of robotic warfare with a demonstration of how its new autonomous “Swarm boats” can patrol and secure harbor approaches. The swarm of rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB), which are equipped with the latest version of the agency’s Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) technology patrolled the reaches of lower Chesapeake Bay, Virginia with only remote human supervision as they coordinated actions to intercept and evaluate targets on the water.


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This isn’t the first demonstration of autonomous maritime technology for ONR. In 2014, the James River in Virginia played host to a small fleet of CARACaS-equipped RHIBs that were able to use a combination of off the shelf sensors, software, and control mechanisms to operate autonomously under the supervision, but not direct operation, of a sailor in a remote location. Without human intervention, 13 robotic boats were able to operate in synchronization with one another, navigate to their intended locations, and swarm “enemy” vessels while escorting or guarding Navy warships.



This time, ONR set out to do something more ambitious. Instead of guarding one ship or escorting it in transit, the robotic boats were set the task of harbor approach defense – a much more complicated job involving keeping an eye on large expanses of open water, shorelines, and shipping lanes. According to the ONR, this is dull, dirty, and dangerous work that’s also very expensive to carry out with human sailors, so robots are an ideal solution.

ONR’s demonstration required the swarm boats to coordinate to a much higher degree than previously, employing new robotic behaviors, tactics, and more advanced visual automated vessel classification. ONR says the swarm boats had to seek out unknown vessels, intercept them, classify them as harmless or suspicious, and do so with the assistance of other robotic boats, which aided in tracking and trailing. In addition, the remaining swarm boats had to fill the gaps left by the intercepting vessels to carry on with the patrolling as well as sending updates to the shore supervisor.


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“This demonstration showed some remarkable advances in autonomous capabilities,” says Commander Luis Molina, military deputy for ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons Dept.

“While previous work had focused on autonomous protection of high-value ships, this time we were focused on harbor approach defense. This technology allows unmanned Navy ships to overwhelm an adversary. Its sensors and software enable swarming capability, giving naval warfighters a decisive edge.”

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Discovery, RT, Viacom, and WIRED, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Aon, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.

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