Saturday, June 16, 2012
Last July, in the Atlantic waters off Norfolk, Va., a quartet of drab gray motorboats stalked the shoreline, guarding an imaginary oil platform. They could have passed for Coast Guard utility boats, except there was an empty space where the pilot would stand and, in fact, no one onboard at all. As the boats patrolled, their cameras sighted unauthorized vessels approaching. Using an acoustic hailing device, one of the pilotless boats blared a piercing warning, telling the intruders that their intentions were unclear and they should turn away immediately.

The exercise, organized by the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, was meant to demonstrate the potential for unmanned vessels to serve as sentinels. Guided by artificial intelligence adapted from NASA’s Mars rovers, they can perform patrols without human intervention, identifying possible threats and warning them off. In addition to acoustic hailing devices, they could also be outfitted with nonlethal laser dazzlers or flash-bang grenades to create a diversion and buy time for Navy personnel to respond, officials told CHIPS, the Navy’s information technology magazine.

Boats with no one on them are nothing new. They’re often seen in action movies, usually making a beeline for something flammable, which they then either crash into or are narrowly saved from crashing into. Ghost ships, a staple of nautical lore, tend to be less fiery and more eerie—they pretty much just float around.

The unmanned ships of the future, though, are likely to take a more active role in their own affairs. Like the aerial drones that already populate the airspace over Pakistan and Yemen, sea drones will pilot themselves via cameras and computers. Unlike aerial drones, though, the U.S. military has no plans—yet—to turn them into instruments of death...
(related: US unveils maritime surveillance aircraft)