Monday, July 25, 2011

You Can Swim, But You Can’t Hide From This Robot Jet Ski

You Can Swim, But You Can’t Hide From This Robot Jet Ski: "

The Army has autonomous robots scampering around on land. The Air Force has killer drones dropping bombs from the air. Now the Navy — understandably just a little jealous, and clearly not satisfied with its robotic helicopters — prepares to add two new seafaring ‘bots to the mix.

Blackfish” is a remote controlled, sawed-off jet ski meant to patrol ports for terrorist swimmers up to no good. “Harbor Wing” is a 60-foot, 10-ton, environmentally friendly sailboat with a catamaran’s hull, packed full of surveillance equipment meant to aim a stealthy, sailor-free eye on far away horizons. Both vessels would surf around without a human on board.

This isn’t the Navy’s first venture into robotic catamarans. A few years back they released a whole master plan on how unmanned vessels could help spy on enemies, transport soldiers across the water, torpedo hostile boats or outsmart pirates. And defense electronics companies have been quick to jump on the robo-ship bandwagon. This is just the latest iteration.

A smaller prototype of Harbor Wing, the X-1, has been petering around Hawaii for some time now. The new model is scheduled to set sail this fall. Guided by GPS, the X-2 will venture into the open ocean, going solo on a preprogrammed course from San Diego to Hawaii and back again. That course is pretty precise — Harbor Wing supposedly never veers more than five meters off its designated path. It’s got a collision avoidance system to avoid rogue objects that turn up in the Pacific, self-defense capabilities to fend off attackers, and can survive some pretty nasty weather conditions. 18-foot waves? No problem.

The Navy hopes to use Harbor Wing for long-range surveillance and observation missions. But hey, it might even help them keep track of marine mammals — apparently it’s costly for their helicopters and airplanes to do the job.

Drone jet ski Blackfish, on the other hand, will be concerned with a different sort of mammal: the human kind. The sensor-packed nautical Knight Rider, developed by British contractor QinetiQ, will patrol foreign and national harbors to ferret out terrorists lurking where larger Navy ships can’t find them.

“There’s great concern about swimmers approaching the boats underwater,” QinetiQ’s Mark Hewitt tells Discovery News. “The Navy has been working on the problem for some time.”

But never fear, a robotic jet ski outfitted with sonar, radar and video cameras will do the trick. Who knew the 10-foot-long craft would prove so useful in the fight against terrorism? It’s capable of zipping along at 40 miles an hour, but will probably stay at about a crawl. Even very determined terrorist swimmers don’t go much faster than 2 mph — and the robot has to ease up enough to detect them.

Both of these nautical automatons can be controlled from afar — Harbor Wing from hundreds of miles, Blackfish up to a kilometer away — but the idea is to get them to sail solo. Which is oh, just a little worrisome, since both may be armored with weapons. So hey, if you weren’t already concerned about accidentally getting hit by an automated watercraft while swimming, now you can fret about getting blown out of the water.

Photo: QinetiQ


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