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TOKYO — The U.S. military is preparing to launch a “river drone” that will move upstream ahead of special operations troops to conduct surveillance missions and look for ambushes and improvised explosive devices.

The 6-foot, 85-pound Modular Unmanned Surface Craft Littoral will be tested by personnel from the U.S. Navy’s Riverine Force Group 1 in Norfolk, Va., this summer, according to Capt. Duane Ashton of the Navy’s Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office.

“This approach will add needed flexibility and reduce risk to our most expensive human assets,” said retired Lt. Col. David Johnson, executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.

Three of the river craft — which are small enough to be carried — were built by the Navy for $700,000 each, although production costs would likely change if they were manufactured in bulk by a defense contractor, Navy officials said.

Such vessels could be useful tools for U.S. forces, who can expect to operate on rivers during future operations, Johnson said in an email.

“Many of the world’s largest port facilities are on rivers near densely populated urban centers,” he said. “In emerging economies, the river transportation network is essential to economic development. Further, rivers are a vital source of water and food in an increasingly competitive world.”

U.S. forces operated on rivers in Vietnam and, more recently, in Iraq.

A remotely-operated river craft could be useful for a variety of missions, including port and dam security, counter-piracy operations, military deception, computer network operations and maritime operations in extreme conditions, Johnson said.

The U.S. military has used unmanned aircraft to perform numerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, a river drone might have advantages over an unmanned aircraft for certain missions and in certain weather conditions, Johnson said. For example, a river drone might have the ability to sample water conditions beneath the surface.

“Rivers are not the only part of the littoral where these could operate,” he said. “Deltas, estuaries, lakes and canals are part of the ecosystem.”

The drones could counter criminal and terrorist infiltration and strategic actions by a conventional enemy, he said.

“Can these boats be used to protect a pontoon bridge used by a land force crossing a river? Possibly,” he said. “Could they be used to attack such a bridge or a dam under obscure and difficult conditions without risking manpower? Definitely.”

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