Surface Forces: Swarmware Evolves And Learns to Think

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December 28, 2016: In late 2016 the U.S. Navy conducted a second successful live test of its new CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing) “swarmware” (swarming software) for USVs (unmanned surface vessel). This one involved a slightly different approach and involved testing the ability of the software to quickly learn and adapt its behavior while in action. The first test, in mid-2014, involved simpler situations, like patrolling harbors or anchorages or entrances to harbors or rivers. The 2014 test had swarms of up to fourteen USVs operating together and automatically dealing with threats a small list of predefined threats. The 2016 test left more decision making to the swarmbots to quickly adapt to the situation, the better to handle a fast moving situations.

Both tests used a system whereby a “kit” of sensors and electromechanical components was used that turned existing small manned boats into USVs. Each kit cost about $2,000 per boat and when not in use are stored in a small container that can easily flown in to whatever port or coastal location needed swarm capability. As of 2016 the navy has identified fifteen different types of small boats that could be equipped with a CARACaS kit.

Since 2014 work on CARACaS showed that software has again become a weapon and the side that can most quickly improve software capabilities will have a combat edge. This is nothing new as for decades software superiority has been a factor in the development of missile guidance systems, ship fire control systems and aerial (radar) and undersea (sonar) systems.

Note that this sort of algorithmic response to combat situations is nothing new. As far back as the early 1940s (World War II) allied naval forces were using mathematically optimized search patterns to more effectively find a German submarine(s) that had just attacked a convoy. The Germans took a while to figure out why the same number of convoy escorts had suddenly become so much more effective. Similar techniques became more common and more effective during and after the war. So swarmware is no unexpected breakthrough but the evolution of a decades old technique.

CARACaS was developed initially to turn any small power boat into a software controlled boat. These small boats could be manned, speeding up the decision to open fire. But CARACaS can also easily adaptable to existing navy USVs like the Spartan Scout, which is a two ton, 7 meter (22 foot) long, radio controlled boat. It is armed with a .50 caliber machine-gun and a number of sensors (mainly day and night vidcams). Spartan Scout is more suitable for patrolling port areas and inland waterways where quick armed response might be needed. When operating using the new swarmware the USVs in the immediate area will communicate with each other and automatically respond to a small boat (possibly part of a terrorist attack on a ship) by automatically moving into position to block the approach of the unidentified boat. If that doesn’t stop the intruder a human operator, who is alerted whenever there the swarm detects a potential intruder, can allow one or more of the armed USVs to open fire. The ideas behind “swarmware” have been around since the 1980s but it has taken time to make this type of software control more robust and reliable.

Older USVs could also operate without an operator by using GPS to move between specified locations. That’s one reason why Spartan Scout was designed to stay out for up to 48 hours depending on how much high speed (it can hit up to 80 kilometers an hour) running is done. It also has a loudspeaker and microphones, so that the operator (who is usually so far away that he can't see the USV) can converse with crewmen on suspicious ships. Spartan Scout was particularly useful when it got its first tryout in the Persian Gulf during late 2003. There are a lot of small boats moving about, some of them up to no good. An Arab linguist on the mothership was able to interrogate suspicious boats the Spartan Scout ran down. The civilian sailors were somewhat taken aback when they were interrogated by this Arab speaking boat that had no one aboard. While Spartan Scout was developed primarily to work with the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship), every ship now wants one or more of them, just for port security.

Spartan Scout is also designed to use different sets of equipment for different missions (detecting mines, Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance, Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection, destroying threats with machine-guns, and Antisubmarine Warfare).

Seeing the need for a larger USV, the U.S. Navy has developed a new USV to be carried and used by surface ships or even submarines for anti-submarine warfare. Officially called the Fleet class Anti-Submarine Warfare Unmanned Surface Vehicle (ASWUSV), the 12.5 meter (39 foot) long boats weigh 8.5 tons and can carry 2.5 tons of sensors and other equipment. The USV can move up to 63 kilometers an hour and stay at sea for up to 24 hours and most of the time it would be moving slowly, using its sonar to search for subs. The ASWUSV is equipped with GPS and a computerized navigation system that allows it to automatically run search patterns. Thus the sailors controlling the boat remotely can move it to an area that helicopter or aircraft dropped sonobuoys have picked up a contact and pursue it more intensively with the more powerful sensors it has on board. Such pattern searching (worked out with algorithms derived from experience with what subs can do) has been a successful tactic since World War II. While two of these ASWUSVs can be carried by LCS ships, the boats can also be used from shore stations. The ASWUSV was developed based on experience with the Spartan Scout and could also make use of the swarmware.

Other nations are developing similar technology. In 2013 Israel revealed a larger (11 meter/34 foot) version of their original nine meter long Protector USV. This new one is armed with a water cannon and Spike guided missiles. The new Protector is more stable in rough seas and can stay out for over 12 hours at a time.

The original Protector USV is a four ton, 9 meter (30 foot) long speedboat that can move at up to 72 kilometers an hour and is armed with a remote control 12.7mm machine-gun (using night vision and a laser rangefinder). Both versions of Protector are equipped with radar, GPS, and vidcams, as well as a public address system, to give orders to boats that should not be there.

Protector has been used for the last decade in places like the Israeli coast, the Persian Gulf, and Singapore for port and coast patrol. Protector can be controlled from an operator ashore or in a nearby ship, usually out to the horizon or at least 10-20 kilometers distant. The original Protector can stay out eight hours at a time. The one big shortcoming is that Protector is built for speed, not rough seas. So when the weather turns bad, and the waves get higher, Protector has to be brought in. Protector is used to patrol the Gaza coast and the waters around the Lebanese border. These USVs were also used off Gaza during the 2009, 2012 and 2014 wars with Hamas.

 

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