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'Silent Nemo': Navy's swimming spy 'fish' may be operational next year

GhostSwimmer, a biomimetic device developed by the Office of Naval Research and made by Boston Engineering, is seen in this image captured from video. The device is completing a trial at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va.

SCREEN GRAB FROM (NEWPORT NEWS, VA.) DAILY PRESS VIA NDN

By MIKE HIXENBAUGH | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot (TNS) | Published: December 11, 2014

VIRGINIA BEACH (Tribune News Service) — It looks like a fish, sort of. It swims like a fish, again, if you squint. It's even named after a fish — OK, a Disney one. Navy war toy creators are hoping that's enough to get the little swimmer into unwelcoming territory undetected to spy on enemies and protect U.S. ships and ports from harm.

Project Silent Nemo is underway this week at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Va., where a team of civilian engineers and young military officers are testing the capabilities of a 5-foot, 100-pound underwater robot that's designed to look and swim like a bluefin tuna.

The robotic fish glided through the harbor Thursday as sailors took turns controlling it with a joystick. It can also swim autonomously. It's black dorsal fin poked above water as its tail wiggled back and forth, propelling it almost silently.

The underwater robot was developed by the Office of Naval Research and is being tested by the Chief of Naval Operation's Rapid Innovation Cell — a group of young Navy and Marine Corps officers who have been asked to figure out how to put emerging technologies to use in the military. The same group has been playing around with 3D printers and augmented reality glasses.

The idea of deploying robots that mimic biological traits of living creatures is not new, but until recently it existed mostly in the realm of science fiction. The Navy thinks Silent Nemo — also known as GhostSwimmer — could be operational within the next year.

"This is an attempt to take thousands of years of evolution, what has perfected since the dawn of time, and try to incorporate that into a mechanical device," said Jerry Laderman, a 27-year-old Marine captain who's leading the project. "The idea is to ... essentially reverse engineer what nature has already done."

Existing underwater unmanned vehicles are torpedo shaped and propeller driven. The natural swimming motion of a fish makes far less noise and is more difficult to detect.

"The first time I saw it, I thought it was a living fish," Laderman said. "It looks alive. It's crazy."

The Navy envisions someday deploying an entire fleet of robotic fish to patrol harbors and swim into contested waters. The underwater robots could be used to search for sea mines or inspect the hull of a ship for damage -- two critical tasks that often put humans in harm's way.

For now, the fish is still just a prototype, content to glide quietly through friendly waters.

Dianna Cahn contributed to this report.

©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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