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From Science Fiction to Reality: U.S. Navy Technology and Innovation

By David Smalley, Office of Naval Research

From the 1930s on, science fiction comics, books and movies had plenty of futuristic portrayals of “ray guns” shooting some kind of mysterious energy.

Decades later, Star Wars and Star Trek helped captivate millions more with the idea. But all along, the Office of Naval Research has been steadfastly developing the real thing. Starting in the 1950s, ONR sponsored research that ultimately led to the first “lasers” (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Today, ONR is working on high-energy, solid-state laser weapons. The Laser Weapons System (LaWS), a prototype, was fitted on a ship in the Arabian Gulf in 2014 and proved the ability of this test platform to shoot down UAVs in the air, and surface targets on the waves. Laser capabilities and power are growing every year. Coming soon to a theater (of operations) near you!

Like ray guns, robots have dominated popular imagination for decades.

And as with the development of lasers, yesterday’s science fiction has really become today’s science fact. Today robots perform complex duties on factory floors, clean floors in our houses and even deliver meals to your hotel room. But robots can also save lives. Think shipboard fires. Take lots of Sailors or Marines, add gunpowder and tight quarters where maneuverability is limited, and shipboard fires are a deadly threat – and extraordinarily dangerous to combat. As Sailors learn in firefighting training: In a fire at sea, there is no place to run. What if, ONR scientists thought, we could lessen the dangers of firefighting aboard ships? Using decades of investment into robotics (in 1963, ONR sponsored Shakey the robot, the first to reason through what actions it should take to fulfill a command), ONR researchers are developing SAFFiR – the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot. This human-sized robot can find and suppress even extreme shipboard fires, keeping Sailors out of harm’s way. Here’s hoping SAFFiR never has to do his (its?) job – but it’s nice to know it will be on watch.

Additional examples include augmented reality systems and advanced wireless networks that were among the technologies shown during the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (S2ME2 ANTX) 2017, a set of amphibious exercises at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California last spring.

S2ME2 ANTX focused on five capability areas of amphibious operations: ship-to-shore maneuver; weapons fire support and effects; clearing assault lanes; command and control; and information warfare. Demonstrated technologies included unmanned and autonomous vehicles equipped with sensors to gather intelligence in the air, on land and underwater.

During each amphibious beach demonstration, unmanned surface and underwater vehicles approached the shore first, collecting intelligence about battlespace conditions-including threats and obstacles-providing an accurate picture of what warfighters would face when leaving their vessels and vehicles.

Hardly a day goes by without a news story that shows driverless cars, UAVs delivering holiday packages, or other uses of autonomy in modern life.

Many of these capabilities are possible because of ONR investments in autonomy. The ability for unmanned systems to take on dull, dirty or dangerous tasks has been a priority for ONR engineers. The Office of Naval Research recently developed a hardware and software suite and put it on swarms of unmanned small boats. Once equipped with the autonomy package – called the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS – the boats could collaboratively communicate; detect an intruding vessel in their area of responsibility; approach it; determine whether or not the intruder was a threat; and convey the information to the Sailors on a manned vessel outside the patrol zone. Think safer mine clearance, delivery of supplies in hot zones, ship escort and more.

When you think “virtual reality,” you may imagine Tony Stark from the “Iron Man” movies, hands raised and moving virtual displays in the air.

Well, Navy engineers are working hard to bring that to life. The Battlespace Exploitation of Mixed Reality (BEMR) Lab features a host of advanced virtual reality capabilities that will help warfighters train and operate in the future. ONR’s Jim Blesse recalls the moment of inspiration. “Someone came in and told us his two-year-old had a tantrum that morning because the television screen didn’t function the way his tablet did. A two-year-old! We looked at each other and said ‘Wow. What is that kid going to expect from technology when he’s 18? We need to envision that, now.'” ONR sponsored the BEMR Lab at SPAWAR Pacific to develop virtual reality technologies that are already impacting how the future force trains. (You can even get real-life dizzy looking down from the virtual crow’s nest.)

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