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Unmanned nanomaterial Piranha threatens to redefine naval warfare


April 10, 2012

The nanomaterial-based unmanned Piranha USV boat is now a reality, and threatens to redefine naval warfare - at least that's what its creators at Zyvex Marine hope

The nanomaterial-based unmanned Piranha USV boat is now a reality, and threatens to redefine naval warfare - at least that's what its creators at Zyvex Marine hope

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You've heard of UAVs, unmanned remote controlled military aircraft; but what about USVs? Standing for Unmanned Surface Vehicle, a USV is quite simply an unmanned boat, like Zyvex Marine's Piranha concept. We've looked at USVs before, and the Piranha specifically in early 2010; but what was then a prototype under development is now a fully-fledged production craft, having shipped its first unit last November. "Our production facility is closer to rocket science than traditional boat building," says Zyvex Marine VP Byron Nutley of his boat - the only one in the world, it's claimed, that is made out of nanomaterials. But does the Piranha have the technological bite to match the hyperbole, and what does this mean for naval warfare?

The finished Piranha hasn't departed greatly from the prototype. It's still made of Arovex, Zyvex's proprietary "nano-enhanced" carbon fiber, a lightweight material that promised significant efficiency gains over boats made from fiberglass or aluminum. But with the production model built Zyvex has coughed up some numbers to support the claims. Most significant of these is that its 54-foot craft has demonstrated a fuel consumption of 12 U.S. gallons (45.4 liters) per hour at a cruising speed of 24 knots (44 km/h). This, Zyvex claims, constitutes a 75-percent fuel saving compared to a "traditional" boat consuming 50 U.S. gallons (189 liters) per hour, allowing ten times the range. That's a claim almost as bold as it is hazy (what's a traditional boat?), and in lieu of any precise figure on range, it's worth repeating the claims made about the prototype: an 8,000-pound boat capable of carrying a 15,000-pound payload a distance of 2,500 miles (4,000 km).

And greater range is, in military terms, the prime advantage of fuel economy. "So far, the Navy and its suppliers have been choosing to build USVs from rubber, aluminum, or fiberglass - all safe, but dated, choices," says Zyvex in a statement. "If the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force can control attack aircraft flying over Afghanistan from cubicles in Nevada, there is little reason why the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard cannot accomplish many of their missions with a fully remotely operated patrol vessel." Though a long-range USV would require a ground crew, Zyvex claims that there is no need for it to be tied down to any specific location or launch platform.

The Piranha concept will not be the only one of Zyvex Marine's Arovex-fashioned watercraft for long. The company has announced two new "platforms" based on the Piranha, the LRV-11 and the LRV-17 - both of which will be offered in manned and unmanned configurations, though there's no word yet on what these models are for, or what they will look like.

But a clue comes in the shape of the company's PR bluster. Zyvex is positioning its ultra-modern boats for a new era of naval supremacy, in which huge fleets of colossal ships are not only prohibitively expensive but also undesirable. In a world in which (it claims) the main marine threat is posed by piracy, gun-runners and water-borne terrorism, fast and nimble is what counts. Perhaps for this reason (and maybe for some good PR), Zyvex suggests that the obvious role for an unmanned, long-range USV is as a convoy escort. But it also points out that one of its USVs could be used for stealthy strike attacks, loitering "silently for days or even weeks," before launching Hellfire missiles or Mark 54 torpedoes. Perhaps less controversial is the potential for such a boat for minesweeping purposes.

Zyvex points out that many missions still require direct human intervention, but the idea is that vehicles derived from the Piranha concept have the speed and range to buy the time required for a manned ship to arrive on the scene. Though one may object to the extension of unmanned, remote-controlled warfare from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the seas off the Horn of Africa, this is precisely what Zyvex hopes to see. "With the Army and Air Force planning to have more than 800 Warrior, Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk long-range UAVs by 2020, why should the Navy and Coast Guard not have at least as many long-range USVs?"

You can see a video of the Piranha concept in action below.

Source: Zyvex Marine

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

"With the Army and Air Force planning to have more than 800 Warrior, Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk long-range UAVs by 2020, why should the Navy and Coast Guard not have at least as many long-range USVs?"

Gotta love this comment. Make it into a pissing contest and make a new toy for the military so they will spend more money unecessarily.


More ASW, a surface warfare robot boat does nothing a UAV does better, the UAV has more speed, greater sensor range and lives outside of a very hostile environment. I would still not like to have one caught in a fishing net and displayed in Terhan.

However as an ASW role it can go active at all times without the worry of a torpedo killing the crew of a multi billion dollar frigate and still be invisible to radar and still be cheaper to operate than a ASW Heliocopter. They are far easier and cheaper to build than submarines in the littoral waters, fitted with hedgehog and type 46 torpedoes they would be a nasty threat. It could also operate as a fleet missile decoy, but it is still too expensive to use as a kamakaze weapon.

It has its place.


Hmmmm the payload, and fuel efficiency are very good.... HUGE improvement.

Pity that it can't do anything besides playing it's life out as an automated kill pawn of Pax Americana.

Mr Stiffy

Interesting, but a boat is much easier to capture than an airplane is. The improvements are outstanding if true.


More robots that kill people. We'll make them first and everyone will learn from us, but it was inevitable. This part of the future doesn't look good so we have to keep pushing for peaceful solutions.

The Hoff

I would like to see it pull a distressed swimmer out of the water.


yes we need more war toys from the makers of Skynet, spot on Slowburn and Mr Stiffy, who benefits from this thing being produced?, yep the rich, stepping on the middle class, class warfare coming soon to our planet. colorful metaphor deleted, starts with an F

Bill Bennett

And how many shell hits or near misses can this lightweight boat sustain? And missiles and torpedos? Does this miracle nano material make it bulletproof?

Didrik Ganetz

Slowburn, nice idea for rescue boat but a tricky design project, I should think. Good challenge for some group.

Bruce Hudson

I would like to see it pull a distressed swimmer out of the water. comment Slowburn - April 10, 2012 @ 01:20 pm PD


Automated harpoon and automated winch.


nice piece of tech . compare it to a traditional boat - my guess is they compared to the same payload , armament . even if it's true that an UAW has greater range , better sensory options - I'd go for an unmanned vehicle that can stay in place for an infinite time , guarding a territory . this is an USW project - staying there virtually for ever - drinking only sunlight , launching UAW-s if needed , protecting ships , listening to pirates , weather etc . a small satellite , armed , with an AI capable of living on the sea constantly , ideal for search and rescue operations .

Károly Hőss

It seems that each technology gets its major development as a weapon of war. We humans only seem to make big advances when trying to amass power over others.

If the now-inevitable massive deployment of unmanned vehicles eventually puts an end to traditional war, we will be lucky. If instead it just leads to an orgy of killing ... not so good.


Boy, we're getting closer and closer to that episode of Star trek where the people who are reported to have been killed in computer generated attacks report to chambers and are killed. Talk about real progress! NOT!!! I can just imagine where some AI 'puter starts predicting that so and so is about to commit a crime based upon a pattern recognition algorithm, and sends out a missile or something to kill them for "the good of humanity". Yeah, right.


Expanded Viewpoint
Back in 1860 we had battle barges. They had limited self propulsion but massive fire power and were difficult to defeat. Now the Navy is considering and perhaps building very high tech vessels which are unmanned and designed to be towed to within 300 miles of combat duty. They have no profile and are built such that waves wash over the deck. They are designed to carry missiles of all types including cruise missiles as well as smaller missiles intended to fight other ships. These may not be small vessels at all although various sizes may be built. The idea is to be able to place this vessel in an area for a month or more without human attention and be able to fight or control an area or even launch wars. They are more self mobile than a battle barge and can easily make the 300 mile return to meet their support vessel. They will intimidate foreign powers easily. Jim Sadler

Like Rome,We are rotting from the inside worried about the outside.


Peacenik trolls are tools of the enemy of liberty. Károly Hőss is correct. It is ALWAYS them or us. Silent vigilance is a great tool for ultimate peace.

Marvin Keith

You could take this concept and make an automated fishing vessel out of it, like they have automated tractors on some farms. I'm thinking "deadliest catch": it should be straightforward to make a roboticized crabbing vessel, seems like it wouldn't even require any new technology that isn't off-the-shelf. Actually the ideal robot crabber would be a submarine so it doesn't sink from ice build-up, or get tossed in the waves.

Another use of a USV would be to periodically go visit all the uninhabited islands of the seas, and check if there aren't any castaways stuck out there. No more Gilligans!


Could DARPA explain how come its projects such as this one violate the laws of robotics? Still what can one expect from a country which used the Bomb not once, but twice?

Mike Callesen

With all this technology available, the Navy and/or Coast Guard still can't stop backyard level diesel powered subs carrying cocaine from South America. Why is that? If one takes into account every aspect of the illicit drug import trade, one would find it every bit as dangerous, expensive and destabilizing as anything Tehran or Damascus has done thus far. Does the Military practice on these Live targets"? If not, why not? Secure the Homeland FIRST!


@ Marvin Keith: You are right on the money! Peaceniks seem to be under the assumption that if we just stand down, enemies will just go away. Childhood bullies taught me otherwise. Peace through superior firepower is the reality. Projecting that superior firepower without endangering troops is better yet.


re; Burnerjack

Legalizing the drugs would fix the drug smuggling problem and reduce the rest of the problems of drug consumption.


re; Mike Callesen

DARPA the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is owned by the Department of Defense; something that in a more rational time was called the War Department.

The "Laws of Robotics" exist only as the fevered imagines of a science fiction writer.

It is entirely possible that the firebombing of Tokyo killed and injured more people than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined including the radiation poisoning. About 1.5 million people lived in the burned out section and the wind swept fire cut off the line of evacuation. Also nobody knew about iodine131 back then either. But lets not forget the Rape of Nanking, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and of course the mass kidnapping and RAPE of young women and girls, many who had not yet started menstruating. The Three quarters of the girls that died may have been the lucky ones.


re; Bill Bennett

I'm not sure how you missed this but Skynet is fictional. Also the Fail-safe system was not designed to make sure that the weapons reached their targets but instead it was made so that the weapons could only reach their targets intentionally.


@Slowburn - In the days before they had helicopters, the coast guard would use leftover WWII bombers to drop inflatable lifeboats & flotation devices near people in the water. This thing could do something similar.

Also, who ever asked about armor... It's a drone! It doesn't need armor! If it gets bricked, they just send in another one.


re; AngryPenguin

Given that it is in the water stopping to pick someone up should be possible and I'm not prepared to write off everyone who is chilled or fatigued beyond self rescue.

I'll bet you complains about all the money the military wastes. Armor improves the odds that it will be able to complete its mission and come home for repairs that cost far less than buying a new drone.

I don't like drones for anything but surveillance.


Technical wranglings aside, could this video be the most boring and uninformative ever, or am I missing something?


It needs to have around a 5000 mile range for safty and the capebilities for for different missions situations can change in a hurry anf you need to be able to adjust to them

Vann Wilson

@ Slowburn:

Good point, I hadn't thought about hypothermia. But still, an army of drones would be useful for the 'search' part of 'search and rescue'.

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