Naval commanders have a new tool in protecting their ships against bad guys in the water: a 10-foot long remote-controlled jet ski that can see underwater and cruise across the waves at 40 miles per hour. The so-called "Blackfish" is undergoing testing by the Office of Naval Research after its recent development by the British defense contractor Qinetiq.
Developers of the Blackfish say it's designed to scare off swimming terrorists who may be lurking in ports where U.S. ships are docked. Such a suicide attack by al-Qaida operatives killed 17 sailors on the USS Cole back in 2000 when it was docked in the Yemeni port of Aden.
"In both domestic and foreign ports, there’s great concern about swimmers approaching the boats underwater," said Mark Hewitt, senior vice president for maritime and transportation for Qinetiq North America. "The Navy has been working on the problem for some time."
While the U.S. Navy boasts huge firepower, and the ability to launch a full-scale war from sea, its real vulnerability, experts say, is from small watercraft or swimmers who can slip through the cracks. That’s where something like the Blackfish comes into play.
Hewitt said engineers at the company “sawed the top half off” an existing jet ski and added sensor packages for underwater sonar, surface radar and a video camera. The craft operates within a one-kilometer range from its human driver, and can be programmed to run a route through the water based on GPS waypoints. There’s also the possibility of adding weaponry.
Hewitt said the toughest engineering challenge was making it go slow enough.
"It’s a jet ski, it goes fast," he said. "Human swimmers only go two knots. We solved the problem by adding bow thrusters, so you can turn off the main propulsion and track at low speeds."
Hewitt says any collision between Blackfish and a friendly surfer or swimmer probably won’t result in major injuries; it uses a hydro-jet instead of a propeller. Still unanswered is the question of who is at fault if someone were to get hit by a robo-ski, the human operator or the company who made the robot.
Port security has been a huge concern for the navy, as well as the commercial shipping industry. Just last month, experts from several branches of the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard and local authorities put together a war game of sorts in San Francisco Bay to figure out how best to detect a threat from a boat.
The simulation is will continue for several months using Navy and civilian law enforcement, working with underwater vehicles, drone aircraft, linked computer networks and other kinds of advanced sensors to counter a nuclear radiological threat smuggled aboard a small craft, according to Alex Bordetsky, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and director of the project, which is a collaboration with the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
The idea of using unmanned vehicles such as Blackfish to perform difficult, boring or dangerous tasks are gaining fans at the Pentagon, according to Sam LaGrone, U.S. maritime reporter for Jane’s Defense Weekly. In addition to a technological advantage, LaGrone says there’s a big financial one as well. Robot guards don’t need breaks, and they cost less to operate.
"If you have an unmanned system that can persistently hang out and cover more ground than a person with eyeballs and a rifle, it’s something to consider," LaGrone said. "That’s probably why they are pursuing this. The name of the game is saving money."