The Office of Naval Research released details of the August test of autonomous "swarmboats" patrol vessels. These are unmanned boats designed to better automate ship defense. (YouTube/Office of Naval Research)

The bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 by al-Qaeda fighters killed 17 American sailors and underscored the difficulty of protecting U.S. Navy vessels from terrorist attacks. The service is now working on new technology that may help, however: drone boats that can swarm an incoming craft and destroy it if it doesn’t turn away.

The Office of Naval Research released information about the technology over the weekend, saying the Navy is “unleashing a new era in ship protection.” The swarms are designed to give extra protection to Marines and sailors who are on board larger ships. The drone boats are enabled by advanced sensors and software that was initially developed by NASA for use on the Mars rover, Navy officials said.

This image from a video released by the Office of Naval Research shows autonomous drone swarm boats defending a larger U.S. Navy vessel. (YouTube screen grab)

“When we look at autonomous swarm, we’re not talking about a single vessel. We’re talking about multiple, multiple vessels that can be in a defensive posture and then — when called upon — can become offensive, surround an adversary and let them know that you are coming no closer to our ship,” Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder said in a new video outlining the technology. “But of course, if an adversary then decides to come closer we can give them another warning, or potentially we can say, ‘You’ve come to close. We’re now going to destroy your vessel.’ ”

The computers on board can be added to nearly any boat, allowing the system to operate autonomously, Navy officials said. Here’s a .gif showing a computer model of a swarm:

The Navy demonstrated the swarm boats in a project on the James River, near Fort Eustis in Virginia, in August. Drone boats escorted a vessel, with some of them breaking off to stop another ship.

Navy officials hope to be able to begin operational testing for the program within a year.