The ocean is vast and humans are finite. Naval history is defined by moments where the sea shrinks, where the sheer mass of materiel in the water changes an open field of maneuver into a dense and tangled mess. It’s why the straits of the world have such an outsized importance in naval planning, as the rare spot where swarms of small boats can mitigate the reach and power of massive vessels. The manpower needed for swarming attacks with small boats makes the tactic possible.
But what if the ratio of humans to ships could be reduced? What if one fast boat could direct dozens of uncrewed allies?
Meet the 56 robot boat (roboat?) swarm from China’s Yunzhou Tech Corporation. In a video released online earlier this week, the swarm maneuvers around a larger boat, weaves back and forth like so many synchronized swimmers, and moves in great arcs like a grenadiers on parade.
For now, the boats are unarmed, though as Robert Beckheusen notes at War is Boring, Yunzhou tech debuted an armed version of an unmanned boat last year. (When the U.S. Navy debuted a robot swarm in 2014, it was with just four boats 1/14th the size of China’s swarm. Those boats also had the distinction of being armed from the start.)
Swarms like this have limitations: the communication network to keep boats operating together may have a finite range and be vulnerable to some form of electronic warfare, and the ability of a human to direct the swarm might not match the full potential of the ships. (Should boats in the swarm have enough autonomy, the limited command capacity of the human operator can be greatly mitigated). And the range of anything dependent on multiple modest engines will be somewhat limited.
But the power of the swarm, should it be armed and take to sea, is one that the video is unsubtle about conveying. At one point in the video the swarm, seemingly moving as just an irregular mass, converges into the distinct outline of an aircraft carrier.
To hammer home the point, the video flickers an aircraft carrier outline on the swarm, the human-crewed ship in the swarm sails down the outlined runway, and the video shows in a superimposed window fighter jets taking off from a carrier ramp. Subtle this isn’t, but power projection seldom is.
Watch the video below:
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.