The U.S. Navy Wants Robot Ships That Talk Like Humans

Michael Peck

Concerned that the advent of unmanned surface ships can result in collisions with manned vessels, the Navy wants technology that will enable robot ships that talk like humans.

The goal is to enable human bridge crews to converse with robot ships using normal speech over VHF radio.

“The nautical rules of the road (COLREGS) provide clear guidance for encounters between two vessels, but they do not directly specify what should happen when three or more vessels come in close proximity to each other at nearly the same time,” according to the Navy research solicitation. “Mariners commonly deal with such situations by communicating via VHF Bridge-to-Bridge radio. Current Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) have COLREGS reasoning engines, but they cannot incorporate information from Bridge-to-Bridge conversations, nor can they reply to simple maneuver proposals.”

Technology already exists to convert voice to text and vice versa, while unmanned ships have COLREGS programmed into their AI to enable them to follow the maritime rules of the road. And the Navy wants to use all of this to create virtual sailors that will communicate like real ones.

“The Navy seeks an integrated solution that will enable a USV to act much like a human mariner,” the Navy said. “In particular, the USV should be able to understand secure Bridge-to-Bridge radio transmissions, incorporate their meaning into its world model, develop appropriate maneuvering plans, and respond via voice on the Bridge-to-Bridge radio.”

Phase I of the project calls for a system that can respond to a routine signal such as, “Sea Hunter, this is Sun Princess; propose a port-to-port passage.” It will feature English-language transmissions from native speakers. Sea Hunter happens to be the Navy’s experimental yacht-sized robot ship, designed to autonomously detect and track ultra-quiet diesel submarines.

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