Imagine that you're enjoying a peaceful harbor tour, maybe in San Diego, gently rocking in the boat as the tour guide points out some scenic attraction. Suddenly, the tour boat is surrounded by at least five 11-foot boats waving the American flag, herding the tour boat to the side of the harbor.
When you look over the side to see what's going on, you notice something startling: There's no one in the boats.
This is the U.S. Navy's latest plan for safety, surveillance and security: Unmanned surface vessels, or USV for short. These boats are outfitted with gear that makes any boat capable of autonomously swarming with other similarly-outfitted vessels.
The technology that powers these boats and allows them to work together in a swarm formation is the same kind of technology that was developed for the Mars Rover. The boats are controlled using a system called the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS for short.
But CARACaS doesn't just steer the USVs, it also sends and receives data from each vessel that creates a kind of "hive mind." Each vessel knows what the other vessels are seeing and how they are reacting to coordinate their movements together.
The Navy recently completed its most comprehensive USV swarm test to date on the James River in Virginia. The USVs swarm together to escort a manned research vessel, then break off to circle a possible threat. You can see the footage from the test below.
Naval researchers are excited that the test went so well. This points to a future when submarine, surface, and flying unmanned craft can automatically defend our borders and keep all of our troops safe.
It's important to note that the decision has not been made to allow USVs to control their own firepower. Any vessel must have an armed and certified sailor on board if it's going to act aggressively.
This isn't the only time that researchers have been able to engineer unmanned swarming robots. Take a look at this incredible display of drone helicopters working in perfect formation.