1. Who is steering these things?

The 11-meter boat is outfitted with sensors to detect its surroundings, and software to help it determine what to do with that information. The software was based on the technology the Mars Rover uses. It’s similar in concept to how Google’s self-driving cars make themselves aware of their environment. The autonomous swarmboats could be part of the Navy’s fleet within a year.

 2. Why do we need swarming boats?

The Office of Naval Research is developing the boats to better automate ship defense. One sailor could control a fleet of patrol boats, and order them to surround a suspicious vessel. Here’s how Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, the chief of Naval research, describes swarming:

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 — let them know that you are coming no closer to our ship. But of course if an adversary or threat decides to come closer we can give them another warning or potentially we can say ‘You’ve come too close, we are now going to destroy your vessel.’

3. Will these unmanned boats — guided by a computer program — decide when and where to shoot?

No. The Office of Naval Research says a human will always be in the loop for designating a target and deciding to shoot. A sailor could pinpoint the target and say when lethal force could be used. This is similar to how a guided missile works. A pilot picks the target, and then the missile determines its path.

But there’s a lot more to be resolved before such a system is ready. A spokesman told Breaking Defense that in its recent demonstration of the technology, it didn’t “study the specifics of how the human-in-the-loop works for rules of engagement.”

4. How do the swarming boats know where their potential enemy is located?

At the August test in the James River, a helicopter overhead helped in designating the target.

5. So how many boats will be swarming, and what kind of boat might they protect?

During the Navy’s test, 13 boats surrounded a high-value ship. When the suspicious boat arrived, five of them broke off to swarm it. The boats would likely defend a cargo ship or aircraft carrier. The demonstration tried to replicate traveling through a strait.

6. Should Somali pirates be worried?

Maybe. Automation makes everything cheaper, so defending cargo ships will be even easier. The shipping industry might try to acquire similar technology. One person controlling a fleet of automated patrol boats is a lot more cost-effective than paying eight captains to pilot eight different patrol boats.

7. What if I want to learn more?

Here’s a video from the Navy that shows the swarmboats in action.