The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) is funding a program to develop a fleet of “smart robocopters” to hunt down pirates in congested seas.

A new sensor on unmanned aircraft will be able to distinguish small pirate boats from other vessels, ONR officials say. The Multi-Mode Sensor Seeker (MMSS) is a mix of high-definition camera, mid-wave infrared sensor and laser-radar (ladar) technology, ONR says.

Slated for deployment onboard Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, the sensor package is scheduled for tests this summer. The prototype will include automatic target recognition software enabling the Fire Scout to autonomously identify small boats on the water, “reducing the workload of sailors operating it from control stations aboard Navy ships,” ONR says.

“Sailors who control robotic systems can become overloaded with data, often sifting through hours of streaming video searching for a single ship,” says Ken Heeke, program officer in ONR’s Naval Air Warfare and Weapons Department. “The automatic target recognition software gives Fire Scout the ability to distinguish target boats in congested coastal waters using ladar, and it sends that information to human operators, who can then analyze those vessels in a 3-D picture.”

The Fire Scout will have Navy-developed target recognition algorithms onboard to exploit the 3-D data collected by the ladar, utilizing a long-range, high-resolution, eye-safe laser, ONR says. The software compares the 3-D imagery to vessel templates or schematics stored in the system’s memory.

“The 3-D data gives you a leg up on target identification,” says Dean Cook, principal investigator for the MMSS program at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Div. (NAWCWD). “Infrared and visible cameras produce 2-D pictures, and objects in them can be difficult to automatically identify. With ladar data, each pixel corresponds to a 3-D point in space, so the automatic target recognition algorithm can calculate the dimensions of an object and compare them to those in a database.”

The algorithms, ONR says, have been successfully tested in shore-based systems against vessels at sea. The software is being integrated into a BRITE Star II turret by a team comprising NAWCWD, Raytheon, FLIR Systems, BAE Systems and Utah State University for airborne testing onboard a manned test helicopter.