Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can Robots Reduce Risk for Naval Boarding Operations?

Intercepting and boarding ships for inspection is one of the most common naval missions. These operations are called VBSS, or Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure in naval parlance, and used to enforce sanctions, disrupt illicit smuggling, and impose blockades in wartime.  In the United States, all of the maritime services - Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard - have some form of VBSS teams. VBSS operations range from routine health and safety inspections to high freeboard opposed boardings, the latter category generally conducted by Naval Special Warfare forces.  In any event, even routine vessel inspections can be dangerous. Robotics technology shows potential to mitigate some of the dangers of VBSS.

One of the riskiest aspects of any boarding operation is simply getting onto the ship.  A vessel's freeboard is the distance from the water up to the main deck level, which is where most teams will embark. On some ships or smaller indigenous craft such as dhows, a boarding team can simply climb onto the deck of the ship from whatever boat it is using.  Higher freeboard ships require VBSS team members, sometimes heavily laden with breaching gear and weapons, to climb a rope or caving ladder.  In a compliant boarding situation, the ladder might be emplaced by the ship's crew. In a non-compliant boarding, the VBSS team will need to use a grapple or a hook to get the ladder attached. At least one company is working on a way to more easily and accurately emplace the a climbing ladder.

The prototype robotic climber, built by a team from Helical Robotics and Matbock, uses magnets to adhere to a ship's hull.  The VBSS team controls the robot to attach a shepherd hook at an appropriate strong point which can be connected to a ladder to allow the team to safely board the ship.  A surveillance system provided by Kopis Mobile supplies real time streaming video to alert the team of any impending dangers at the top of the ladder.

VBSS team with Stingray (U.S. Navy photo)
Once the team is embarked they must move from compartment to compartment, searching the ship for contraband while dealing with any potential unfriendly crew. Both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have tested MacroUSA's Stingray Nano Unmanned Ground Vehicle (NUGV) as a tool to provide better situational awareness to boarding teams.  Stingray was originally funded in 2011 by Office of the Secretary of Defense Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise. The tiny tracked robot can be thrown onto the ship or down ladder wells by teams so that they can view hazards prior to entering the space. Stingray floats (it's waterproof) and can survive a 5 meter drop onto a steel deck, enabling it to handle the harsh environments encountered by VBSS teams.

Boardings are a dirty, dangerous operation, but these kinds of tactical robots will some day make them a bit safer for VBSS teams.