It’s August on Virginia’s James River and a secret military exercise is about to make history. A large ship that the Navy sometimes calls a high-value unit, HVU, is making its way down the river’s thalweg, escorted by 13 small guard boats. Between them, they carry a variety of payloads, loud speakers and flashing lights, a .50-caliber machine gun and a microwave direct energy weapon or heat ray.

A helicopter crew overhead spies a suspicious “enemy” boat that seems to be moving too close to the HVU. Messages are relayed and the small escort boats begin moving. Detecting the enemy vessel with radar and infrared sensors, they perform a series of maneuvers to encircle the craft, coming close enough to the boat to engage it and near enough to one another to seal off any potential escape or access to the ship they are guarding. They blast warnings via loudspeaker and flash their lights. The HVU is now free to safely move away.

What made this particular exercise remarkable was that the 13 boats were not only unmanned, but displayed an unprecedented degree of autonomy. In a recent briefing with reporters, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), pointed out that a maneuver that required 40 people had just dropped down to just one.


I’m waiting for the pilot of an F-22 Raptor to have a similar swarm of (comparatively) low-cost drones to help him own the skies.

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