Drone aircraft have already proven to be a valuable resource in ground combat operations; but thus far, drones have yet to make a significant splash in other facets of warfare. The Navy has been working on changing that, however, with their 132-foot submarine-hunting drone ship, the Sea Hunter, leading the way.

Sea Hunter has already proven its ability to navigate the open ocean on its own when it sailed from San Diego to Hawaii autonomously in February of this year. But as a recent series of tragic collisions involving the U.S. Navy has shown in startling detail, there’s more to safely traversing the world’s waterways than just navigation. In order to avoid such incidents in the future, ships need to be able to communicate with one another over good old fashioned radio channels. This presents a unique challenge to unmanned vessels. The Navy is looking to address this challenge.

“The nautical rules of the road (COLREGS) provide clear guidance for encounters between two vessels, but they do not directly specify what should happen when three or more vessels come in close proximity to each other at nearly the same time,” reads the Navy research solicitation. “Mariners commonly deal with such situations by communicating via VHF Bridge-to-Bridge radio. Current Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) have COLREGS reasoning engines, but they cannot incorporate information from Bridge-to-Bridge conversations, nor can they reply to simple maneuver proposals.”

The concept may seem like science fiction, but in this era of digital personal assistants, talk-to-text applications, and artificial intelligence already actively managing international maritime laws and protocols, it’s really just a matter of marrying the right technologies with one another in a functional manner.

The stakes, however, are much higher for naval vessels traversing busy waterways than they are when you’re shouting at Siri while washing the dishes: A vessel’s system will need to be robust and highly secure. It will also need to be able to easily discern what’s being said over radio channels through interference, accents and potentially even other languages. Most importantly, the system has to be able to translate these interactions into real changes in the ship’s course.

The Navy seeks an integrated solution that will enable a USV to act much like a human mariner,” the Navy said. “In particular, the USV should be able to understand secure Bridge-to-Bridge radio transmissions, incorporate their meaning into its world model, develop appropriate maneuvering plans, and respond via voice on the Bridge-to-Bridge radio.”

The Navy went on to point out that such technology would have far reaching commercial applications, including use on autonomous cargo ships and even as an assistant to human operators on personal pleasure craft. Such a system could revolutionize the shipping industry by reducing or eliminating the need for human sailors on ships.

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