This week, the Navy rolled out successful demonstrations of its new Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) technology, which allows Navy engineers to rebuild pretty much any boat into a deadly, automated drone. The converted vessels sense their environment, trade information and close in on targets like so many sharks circling an unfortunate swimmer.
In coming years, the Pentagon hopes that the drones will deploy alongside ships with human crew to protect them from unconventional attackers. They're both a fascinating technological breakthrough and more than a little terrifying.
Say it to yourself now: "boat swarm."
"When we look at autonomous swarms, we're not talking about a single vessel, we're talking about multiple, multiple vessels that can be in a defensive posture and then when called upon they can become offensive, surround an adversary, let them know you are coming no closer to our ship," chief of naval research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder says in the video. "But of course, if an adversary or threat decides to come closer, we can give them another warning or potentially we can say, 'You've come too close. We're now going to destroy your vessel.'"
Seaward Services' Sam Calabrese adds that "I know if I was the actual target, it would be pretty intimidating to see five boats rushing at me."
True to Klunder's words, the drones are capable of being armed with remote-controlled weaponry that could take out a smaller ship, though these guns would be operated by a technician onboard the parent vessel, rather than operate independently. The Atlantic's Patrick Tucker reports that a test of the technology involving 13 drones was able to cut the work of 40 trained sailors down to one technician:
The units demonstrate a number of behaviors that we associate with the presence of a humanistic pre-frontal cortex. They can plan different actions to take in response to rapidly changing circumstances, weighing costs versus benefits of taking one route or another and do so in perfect collaboration in a chaotic environment. While it's true that they share situational information with one another, they also operate independently ... planning takes place rapidly, just as it would in a human brain when presented with reward or danger in natural setting.
According to the Navy, the advanced software used by the drones to coordinate their swarming behavior was adapted from navigational systems running on NASA's Mars Rover. The drones are capable of mapping out their environment and reacting accordingly, forming on-the-fly plans for preventing adversaries from getting close enough to U.S. sailors to cause harm. Because they're unmanned, they can be deployed on a variety of missions that might be too dangerous for a living sailor, like intercepting the kind of bomb boat that attacked the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39.
Vice's Ryan Faith speculates that they could be paired with other drones, like quadcopters and bomb-defusing underseas robots, to quickly defuse minefields — or perhaps lay them. There are countless other potential uses, like enforcing naval blockades or running interdiction operations against drug smugglers in the Pacific Ocean. Down the road, big coastal city police agencies like the NYPD or the LAPD could receive similar technology. Or the drones could defend shipping routes against maritime piracy.
While a slimmer military has resulted in some cuts to drone programs, they have passionate defenders. The Harvard Political Review's Alex Velez-Green wrote in September that "[f]ighting men have always sought to maximize the amount of violence they can exert relative to the risk they take on. This instinct inspires the continuous advancement of our weapons' range, striking precision, power and speed of action." A paper by the influential Center for a New American Security argues that drones will be at the center of next-generation weapons development, thanks to their potential as a cheap, dispensable force multiplier.
The current technology is purely for naval operations, so don't expect to see these on tanks anytime soon. But the Navy is still forging ahead with drone technology in the air, such as its massive Triton unmanned surveillance plane, which just completed a coast-to-coast overland journey across the U.S. It's hard not to imagine that similar unmanned systems might one day support soldiers on land, installed in armored vehicles or smaller rovers. Let's just hope no one installs swarming behavior in DARPA's terrifying robot dogs, which, by the way, can now follow human orders: