U.S. sea drones patrol Gulf region

The drones are operated by the Bahrain-based US 5th Fleet’s Task Force 59, created last year to integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into Middle East operations.

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Iran’s recent seizure of unmanned US Navy boats shined a light on a pioneering Pentagon program to develop networks of air, surface and underwater drones for patrolling large regions, meshing their surveillance with artificial intelligence.

The year-old program operates numerous unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, gathering data and images to be beamed back to collection centers in the Gulf.

The program operated without incident until Iranian forces tried to grab three seven-meter Saildrone Explorer USVs in two incidents, on 29 to 30 August and 1 September.

In the first, a ship of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hooked a line to a Saildrone in the Gulf and began towing it away, only releasing it when a US Navy Patrol boat and helicopter sped to the scene.

In the second, an Iranian destroyer picked up two Saildrones in the Red Sea, hoisting them aboard.

Two US Navy destroyers and helicopters quickly descended and persuaded the Iranians to give them up the next day, but only after stripping cameras from them, according to the US military.

The Iranians said the USVs were in international shipping lanes and were picked up “to prevent possible accidents.”

The US Navy said the USVs were operating well out of shipping lanes and unarmed.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, called the Iranian actions “flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force.”

US forces “will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” he added.

The drones are operated by the Bahrain-based US 5th Fleet’s Task Force 59, created last year to integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into Middle East operations.

Airborne and subsea drones are pretty well developed and proven, but unmanned surface boats are much newer and yet essential for the future, 5th Fleet spokesman Commander Tim Hawkins told AFP.

Since starting last year, the US Navy and regional partners have deployed both slow USVs like Saildrones and battery-powered speedboats like the Mantas T-12.


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