Autonomous Unmanned Swarm Boats, Asset Protection, AMIO, Drug Interdiction?

Naval Open Source Intelligence pointed me to a report by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) on the use of multiple unmanned surface assets to protect an asset and if necessary initiate a coordinated attack.

“The technology—called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing)—is under development by ONR, and can be put into a transportable kit and installed on almost any boat. It allows boats to operate autonomously, without a Sailor physically needing to be at the controls—including operating in sync with other unmanned vessels; choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting/protecting naval assets.”

Why should the Coast Guard care? The Coast Guard also protects vital maritime assets including passenger ships, vessels with dangerous cargos, and Navy assets including major ships and ballistic missile submarines so there is that direct application.

The system also appears capable of providing a persistent patrol capability that might be useful in Interdiction Operations. We cannot put a boat crew in a RHIB and send them off to operated as an independent extended sensor for 24 hours, but we could do that with an automated RHIB.

UAVs, Let’s Try This One

Here is a UAV that is already in use by the Navy. The ScanEagle, is so small it could operate routinely from the Webber Class WPCs.

Wing Span 10.25 ft (3.12m)
Length 6.5 ft (1.98m)
Max Take Off Weight 44-48.5 lb. (22 kg)
Max speed 80 knots
Cruise speed 50 knots
Ceiling 10,000 ft
Max endurance: 15 hours

In it’s “dual bay” configuration the sensor package can include a synthetic aperture imaging radar in addition to video. It can use standard diesel fuel, but it won’t use much since the engine is less than two horsepower.

It was reportedly used during the Maersk Alabama piracy incident in April 2009 (the first of three times pirates attempted to take the ship).

I think its worth a closer look, like perhaps a deployment on a 210.

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Optionally Manned RHIB?

We know the Coast Guard is working on UASs (Unmanned Aircraft Systems). Perhaps they should also be looking at optionally manned surface vessels. I’m thinking in terms boats that can continue to fill the role of the RHIBs we already have, but with the additional capability of being programmed to conduct a (semi) autonomous search that complements the mother-ship’s own search to almost double the mother-ship’s effective search capability. It looks like the technology, including obstacle avoidance,  may already be out there.

Of course we can do a complementary search with a ship’s boat now, but the endurance of the crew limits this option. We can’t routinely expect a boat crew to operate effectively in a search mode for long periods, but a RHIB could operate for eight or more hours even in weather conditions that would be problematic for a boat crew. With the sensors linked to the mother-ship where sensor operators can be rotated, the search should be almost as effective as a second cutter.

The new 154 foot Hero Class Cutters (FRC) will not operate a helicopter, but a optionally manned RHIB could allow them to effectively patrol an area almost twice as large as they could search unassisted.

A large cutter might use it to complement helicopter or UAV search patterns, filling in when air resources are not available. It could also search in the shallows, close inshore, where we could not take a ship.

Because it is relatively difficult to detect, an optionally manned RHIB, scouting 20-30 miles ahead of the cutter, might detect smugglers that attempt to avoid the cutter by using their own scouting vessels.

The Coast Guard did look at the “Protector,” a small unmanned surface vessel, in 2006, but that looks like a very different concept of operation.

The Singapore Navy already seems to have adopted this technology. Units of various capability are already being offered by Italian, German, and Israeli vendors, some with partners in the US.