- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pentagon planners are taking a long look at the role unmanned robot boats, or “bot boats,” might play in preventing piracy and thwarting terrorists who approach their targets from waterways.

The remote-control craft, which can go untended for longer periods than manned ships and can communicate with other airborne or seaborne vessels, are being considered in light of the increasing incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia and the Mumbai terror attacks last year. In that case, the terrorists made their way to the city after hijacking a fishing trawler at sea.

“They have the ability to be the eyes and ears of the fleet at sea, but also of the forces protecting our ports and harbors,” said Capt. Paul Siegrist, the Navy’s lead for unmanned surface vehicles (USVs).

Capt. Siegrist said the craft “will significantly reduce the risk to our manned forces, providing ‘force multiplication’ to accomplish missions much more effectively - and perform tasks that manned vehicles can’t.”

The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship is the first ship designed to carry USVs.

For now, the developing capability is in the “pre-acquisition” phase, Capt. Siegrist said, with several firms vying for contracts:

General Dynamics already has delivered two 11-meter drones for the Littoral Combat Ship.

The craft, which resemble bulked-up bass boats, “operate and support sensor systems, including [various] sonars,” said company spokesman Karl Oskoian. He said they have “360-degree situational awareness,” can handle 5,000-pound payloads and can operate for 24 hours straight.

Robert Murphy, president of 5G Marine Systems LLC, said his company’s 20-foot bot boat - called an Interceptor - is “specifically designed for security and public-service applications such as anti-piracy patrol, harbor security and oil rig surveillance.”

Besides the Middle East and off Somalia, Mr. Murphy said his craft can protect “very high-profile waterfront developments, … desalination plants and power stations.”

The boats can be deployed from friendly shores and via helicopter and parachute. Operators can be “anywhere on planet Earth,” company officials said. The bot boats are unarmed but can chase or ram pirate or other hostile vessels, or otherwise dissuade them with nonlethal weapons, such as long-range sound-blast devices, intense lights, laser dazzlers, and water cannon.

Officials with Florida-based SeaRobotics Corp. say their model can be air-dropped to cover “vast expanses of open ocean and coastal regions.”

“It’s got advanced military multiband network radios and satellite communications,” said company President Donald Darling.He said the craft also can be outfitted with remote-operated small arms and grenade launchers, plus “nonlethal deterrents” and countersniper systems.

Critics argue that the craft would be late in reacting to fast-unfolding scenarios, such as cargo-ship seizures.

Mr. Murphy disagrees.

“When the ship reaches the danger zones, [bot boats] will already be at sea on patrol - giving the ship an early warning so that appropriate action can be taken, such as increasing speed and changing course,” he said.

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