US navy autonomous boats capable of swarming targets

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is in the works of testing out unmanned surface vehicles to behave autonomously and “swarm” potential threats.

A video from the ONR highlights some of the systems capabilities, including mildly ominous background music. The experimental technology, dubbed CARACAS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing) can be retrofitted to nearly any boat. The boats can act defensively and offensively like circling guard dogs. They can also overwhelm a hostile vessel and make decisions without direct human interaction.

As the press release mentions, these vehicles are capable of “operating in sync with other unmanned vessels; choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting/protecting naval assets.” Harkening back to the bombing of the USS Cole, the deadliest of its kind since the 1984 bombing of USS Stark, this project uses state-of-the-art technology in an attempt to mitigate future attacks. The system is cost effective and rigid-hull inflatable patrol boats can be mounted with various armaments, such as .50 caliber machine guns.

Like DARPAS electronic mutt, BigDog, or the navy’s recently unveiled solid-state laser weapon system (LaWS), it seems like bits and pieces of future tech are coming together into what some call the antecedent to something like Skynet (as overplayed as it may be). Many wonder if advances in automation could backfire.

The US has, for the while, been engaged in relatively small scale excursions, recently combating ISIL and the Al-Nusra front in Syria (which is expected to be strewn out across years). While there have been few full scale offensives, US technology has far exceeded its adversaries in today’s climate.

Competition from other nations, such as Russia or China, drives the machine and its consequences to complicate. Going forward, a full scale modern war could be rendered abstract. With entirely automated fronts, it could bring forth a host of ethical dilemmas. If the combat machines self-replicate or think for themselves, then war would become a statistical game of numbers.


Wars require liabilities, and the idea of droids autonomously destroying civilians is jarring. Maybe (a la Star Trek “A Taste of Armageddon”), wars could be as absurd as computer simulations. Wherein computers would calculate human losses in a simulated scenario and real people would have to be “disintegrated” rather than be messy victims of smart-munitions. No one can accurately predict where this may lead, but it is truly a testament to the times when innovation stems largely from the military wing of a superpower.

Forecasted start year: 
2022 to 2024
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