US Navy to use unmanned, AI-driven ships to counter smuggling, illegal fishing

The Navy's unmanned ships will use artificial intelligence to counter drug and human smuggling operations in addition to illegal fishing

The U.S. Navy is planning to expand its use of unmanned ships using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies by deploying drone ships in the waters around Central and South America to counter smuggling operations along with illegal fishing by China.

The Navy launched a drone ship initiative known as Task Force 59 in late 2021 in the 5th Fleet area, which includes much of the Middle East and several critical maritime chokepoints where the U.S. and partner countries have sought to counter piracy and smuggling. Earlier this month, the Navy announced it will move forward this year with a similar plan to deploy unmanned ships to the 4th Fleet, which has an area of responsibility covering the waters off both coasts of Central and South America and extends to Antarctica.

"The 4th Fleet area of operations provides us with an environment best suited to operationalize the concepts that Task Force 59 has worked tirelessly to develop to increase our maritime domain awareness or MDA capabilities," Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said at a Navy League luncheon earlier this month. 

"The MDA technologies and platforms we are bringing to the region will address several significant challenges," Del Toro explained. "These include narcotics and human trafficking, as well as economic and ecological harm caused by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which the People’s Republic of China, through their distant water fishing fleets, participates in on both the Pacific Coast and the Atlantic Coast of Central and South America."

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Navy Drone Ship Exercise Arabian Gulf

A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV) operates with guided-missile destroyer USS Delbert D. Black (DDG 119) in the Arabian Gulf during exercise Phantom Scope, Oct. 7. During the bilateral exercise between the United States and United Kin (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Roland Franklin / DVIDS)

Unmanned, AI-driven vessels are expected to make up a larger portion of the Navy’s fleet in the years ahead. In the Navy’s latest force structure and shipbuilding plan released last week, the service estimated that the service could have between 89 and 149 unmanned vessels by 2045 compared to between 323 and 365 manned ships.

The use of unmanned drones that are driven by AI and utilize machine learning to analyze the vast quantities of data they obtain not only allows the Navy to sustain its surveillance of key waterways for longer periods of time but also frees up manned vessels for other tasks.

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Drone Ship Strait of Hormuz

USCGC Charles Moulthrope (WPC 1141) and USCGC John Scheuerman (WPC 1146) transit the Strait of Hormuz with an L3Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13 unmanned surface vessel, April 19, 2023. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Information Systems Technician 1st Class Vincent Aguirre / DVIDS)

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday spoke at the same event as Del Toro and said that unmanned vessels can serve as an "unblinking eye" on traffickers heading to U.S. waters while also helping to expose China’s illegal fishing and gray zone activities. AI and other technologies will help the service process that information and respond to it. 

"So we think that we can leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities with that information, that’s supplemented by the data that we pull in from unmanned platforms, to give us a much better common operational picture," Gilday said. "But perhaps leveraging AI to be much more predictive in terms of where that traffic’s coming from, to be much more effective in terms of intercepting it."

Gilday said that the Navy has "deep respect for AI" and noted "the artificial intelligence capabilities that we’ve used so far on our large surface unmanned vessels, as an example, we have 50,000-plus nautical miles of transit in an autonomous mode."

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Drone Ship Navy Middle East

An L3Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13 unmanned surface vessel sails in the Arabian Gulf, Jan. 22, during exercise Neon Defender 23. Neon Defender is an annual bilateral training event between U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and Bahrain that focuses on ma (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anita Chebahtah / DVIDS)

"We have a high degree of confidence in the AI’s ability to follow rules and to avoid traffic, to stay within the channel when required," Gilday added. "We’ve made transits from the Gulf Coast of the United States repeatedly through the Panama Canal and up around to Port Hueneme, California."

Gilday emphasized that it will be an "iterative process" to bring more unmanned vessels into the fleet and that leaders are thinking "minimally manned before we go fully autonomous."

Just last week, the Navy for the first time sent a drone boat through the Strait of Hormuz – a strategic chokepoint for ships entering or exiting the Persian Gulf between Iran and Oman that sees about one-fifth of all oil traded transit the busy waterway. 

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That drone ship, a 41-foot speedboat that carries sensors and cameras called an L3 Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13, was escorted by a pair of U.S. Coast Guard cutters as it was monitored by Iranian forces. 

The escort for the drone ship is notable and comes after an incident last year in which an Iranian naval vessel illegally seized two unmanned drones – both Saildrone Explorers that are equipped with cameras, sensors, and radars to gather data – before releasing them back in the water.