Robot boat being tested by Navy

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The remote-controlled vessel could patrol harbors

The Navy is experimenting with a 16-foot remote-controlled rigid hull inflatable that is being considered for use in port security.

SeaFox debuted at this year’s Fleet Week in New York City in late May. The unmanned vessel is being tested for harbor patrol and drug interdiction, but it has the potential for a wide range of uses.

“The possibilities are only limited by the imagination,” says Master Chief James Bless of the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Va.

SeaFox reportedly is capable of running up to 45 knots and handling 8-foot seas. Its 200-hp jet-drive engine was designed by Mercury Racing, and the 3-liter V-6 diesel-type power plant can run on any type of fuel except gasoline, even vegetable oil, according to Blesse.

The vessel initially was developed to tow targets out to sea for Navy helicopter gunners, but the training program was changed before the project was completed.

Blesse says SeaFox can be driven by remote control or, using GPS satellite signals, can be programmed to patrol autonomously through a harbor, searching for suspicious activities. On-board sensors, such as stabilized night-vision cameras and microphones, can transmit data to a laptop using a wireless computer network. Software created by the Navy controls the boat. SeaFox also is equipped with network video equipment that enables transmission of live color video.

The aluminum hull was built by North Wind Marine in Seattle. Blesse says aluminum is ideal because it is light (less than 1,600 pounds), durable, easily transported, and can be repaired with materials available on board Navy ships. The abrasive-resistant inflatable collar was designed by Wing Inflatables, a manufacturer of sponsons for whitewater rafts and RIBs.

SeaFox can be sent into areas, such as a harbor or marina, ahead of troops to provide visual detection of land- or water-based dangers. It cannot be detected on radar, according to Blesse.

He says SeaFox also can be equipped with a loudspeaker to issue warnings. An electronic interpreter can be installed to translate broadcasts into different languages. Blesse says the vessel also has potential for search-and-rescue missions.

SeaFox has yet to be tested in true battlefield conditions, such as the volatile waters around Iraq. The Office of Naval Research has built two prototypes, each costing around $60,000 to develop.