What would Buck Rogers think? Hi-tech weapons and protection rolled out for Navy

David Kerley, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

It sounds like the stuff of a science fiction movie: Unmanned crafts, lasers and super-powered railguns.

But these are actually the latest in warfare technologies developed by the Navy for use in the real world, and “Power Players” got a sneak peek.

“It is really is becoming real,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder during an interview at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

“I never want to see our Sailors and Marines in a fair fight,” Klunder said. “I always want to have them to have the most effective technologies, the most affordable weapons systems, and with the most innovative technology available.”

Among the most innovative technologies the Navy is rolling out is an “autonomous” boat that can drive itself under the control of a sophisticated computer module hardly larger than a Rubik’s cube. There is absolutely no one at the controls, and the vessel not only drives itself but can operate together with other boats as a “swarm” to protect larger Navy ships.

“We have now turned this patrol craft into a highly functional, highly capable, unmanned weapons system that could be used to either protect a high-value unit, they could be used to engage a threat, they could be used to encircle a threat, and if need be, they could be used to destroy a threat,” Klunder said.

The Navy recently put the boats to the test in a mock scenario where they worked in tandem to form defensive formations to deter attacking boats.

“We had 13 of these unmanned vessels all working together,” Klunder said. “We had a human being that said designate that target, and I want you 13 craft to go and circle that target, and they did just that.”

When equipped with automatic weapons systems, the boats could potentially have the firepower to take on an aggressor, though that remains to be tested in the future. And most importantly, any decision to use a lethal or non-lethal weapons system will be made by humans.

As Klunder points out, what makes the boats more remarkable is their power save lives.

Had these boats been around 14 years ago, Klunder believes the bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors and injured 39 others, could have been prevented. “We would have indeed saved that vessel,” Klunder said.

Another new sci-fi inspired weapon system developed by Klunder’s team is a ship-based laser currently undergoing field testing in the Persian Gulf. The Laser Weapons System or LaWS is designed to provide Navy ships with long-distance protection from ships and aircraft.

To demonstrate the laser’s power, Klunder held up a metal slab that looks as if a hole has been drilled through the middle. “To take that one pulse of energy through this metal slab here [costs] less than a dollar,” he said.

In addition to the sheer power and cost-effectiveness of the laser systems, Klunder said they offer an increased level of precision.

“I'm talking within the precision of a dime,” he said. “We know exactly what we are targeting, we have the laser stabilize, so when we are precise on that target we are talking a few seconds, and there's a hole in that target."

Next, Klunder held up a high-velocity projectile used for new electromagnetic railguns that are powered by electricity and can travel up to 110 nautical miles at seven times the speed of sound.

“It really means that anything that is flying in the sky and is a threat to our nation or to our country or security, we are going to take it out with this,” Klunder said.

Not only are the electric-powered railguns more lethal than they were before, but because they are powered by electricity and not gunpowder, they are safer to use.

“We don't have to store magazines and magazines of gunpowder and projectiles,” Klunder said. “Now, I can put hundreds and hundreds of these on our ships.”

To learn about more of the Navy’s technologies, which includes a system by which forces can have a computer-operated helicopter deliver supplies anywhere in the world, check out this episode of “Power Players."

ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Wayne Boyd, and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.