Killer robots have officially gone out to sea. For the first time, the Navy has fired missiles from a remote-controlled boat, as shown in the video above.
The firing came as part of a test off the Maryland coast on Wednesday. Six of Rafael’s anti-armor Spike missiles got fired off a moving inflatable hulled watercraft, aiming for a floating target about two miles away. The missile firings and the boat’s controls were all handled remotely by Navy personnel on shore at the Navy’s Patuxent River base.
It’s the “first significant step forward in weaponizing surface unmanned combat capability,” Mark Moses, the Navy’s program manager for the armed drone boat project, tells Danger Room. Sure, the U.S. military has no shortage of armed robotic planes and — soon — helicopters. But it doesn’t have weaponized drones that patrol the seas, either above it or below it. The Navy’s early experiments with robotic submarines are for spying and mine clearance, not for attack. Until this week’s tests at Pax River, the Navy didn’t have a robotic surface vessel capable of firing a weapon — the fulfillment of a goal the Navy set for itself in 2007.
The Navy’s been tricking out this 11-meter inflatable boat for the past several years at its base in Newport, Rhode Island, to do just that. Mounted on the boat is a dual-pod missile launcher and an Mk-49 mounting system, all made by Rafael and fully automated, which the Navy’s calling a “Precision Engagement Module.” The Navy seems the module as the sort of thing that could protect U.S. coastline without danger to sailors or coastguardsmen, or prevent pirates or Iranian sailors from maneuvering their small, fast boats between targets that Navy Destroyers can’t risk hitting.
The Precision Engagement Module “could be used in a number of applications including harbor security, defensive operations against fast attach craft and swam scenarios, which is of primary concern for the Navy,” says Moses. “However, it is probably most effective when targets try and hide among commercial vessels –for example, congested waterways.”
In three days’ worth of tests at Pax River this week, the Navy shot off the long-range version variant of the Spike, a 30-pound missile with an effective range of about 2 and a half miles. The video above shows six of the remote firings — and while they looked to our untrained eyes like near misses, the Navy says that’s a trick of the camera angle, and they actually hit their targets.
All this is just a demonstration; it’ll be years and many more tests before the Navy decides if it wants to purchase a fleet of remote-controlled, missile-packing boats. But “the increase in attention and effort for water borne technological advancements coincides with the drawing down of U.S. military resources in the land locked campaign in Afghanistan,” Mark notes, “and a strategic refocusing to problem regions where unconventional maritime threats must be accounted for.” In other words: put the robo-boat off Iranian or Somali waters, and let sailors at a safe distance aim and fire its missiles, much like the Air Forces drone pilots do.