Navy's Floating Lab Showcases Life-Saving Technology

The black Fox quietly slices through murky, choppy waters, on the lookout for anything suspicious.

This Fox isn’t a wild animal or a TV network, but Sea Fox (search): a 6-month-old unmanned boat developed for the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

The ONR showed off its newest addition and other technological wonders in its Afloat Lab, which arrived Wednesday in New York Harbor for the annual Fleet Week (search). Housed on a boat called the Star Fish, the Afloat Lab displays gadgets with a common goal: to shield the military from harm, especially during wartime.

“Technology is the future of the military,” said Master Chief James Blesse of the ONR. “Our main charter is to prevent technological surprise. We go to great lengths to protect these guys.”

Enter the little Sea Fox, a 16-foot, 1,600-pound black inflatable dinghy made of synthetics and aluminum, which just hit the water 10 days ago and is much more cutting-edge than it looks.

Run with a hefty remote control box that works like a video-game joystick and can be strapped onto the body, Sea Fox has cameras on its masts that serve as eyes and capture views in opposite directions and a speaker system that acts as a voice and even a translator. Its powerful, diesel-driven engine allows the boat to high-tail it up to 40 knots in 8-foot waves.

Sea Fox can be sent out to investigate or identify a “target of interest” without having to put troops in danger.

“I can put that out between me and the bad guy instead of me staring the bad guy in the face,” said Blesse. “Sea Fox will save lives.”

Its cameras transmit images of what it encounters back to a computer that sailors scan on the main ship. They can also communicate with anyone onboard the unknown vessel through Sea Fox’s speakers. A translating system will even turn what they say in English into any other language.

And if Sea Fox comes across an enemy and the enemy attacks, the $60,000-$85,000 inflatable boat will be all that’s lost.

“You can buy another Sea Fox,” said Blesse. “You can’t buy another sailor.”

Though Sea Fox hasn’t yet taken a voyage to Iraq or Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers and sailors are entrenched in war, Blesse said he’s ready to send it to troops at a moment’s notice.

“If the Navy wanted it tomorrow, we’d put it on a boat and send it out tomorrow,” he said.

So far there are two Sea Foxes in existence. They’re in good company, with air, land and underwater counterparts.

Silver Fox (search) is a gas-powered, unmanned plane originally for tracking migrating whales that’s now being used in the Iraq war.

Though the 5-foot-long, 22-pound Silver Fox wasn’t just developed this year, it’s been upgraded with a new “eyes in the sky” camera to provide better visual information to the military. Its 7-foot wings are detachable, and the plane can be disassembled and folded up to fit in a large golf bag.

“This is the Navy of tomorrow,” said Capt. Woody Berzins, public relations manager for Advanced Ceramics Research (search), which designed and built Silver Fox.

Then there’s the Marines’ Dragon Runner (search), an unmanned, remote-control ground vehicle that looks like a toy tank and can see around corners for soldiers fighting on land.

Underwater, devices resembling torpedoes with names like REMUS, Bluefin and SeaGlider can clear mines from ports.

Such gadgets and technology are vital to the military in hazardous times.

“I don’t have to put a sailor or a Marine in danger,” Blesse said. “I could put a piece of equipment to intercept rather than a person.”

The Afloat Lab has other high-tech toys and systems onboard this week.

One virtual reality program simulates views of different port entries around the world so ships’ pilots steering the vessels can practice their arrivals — and avoid surprises.

Another invention is a spray-on polymer coating that looks like dried resin and renders aluminum military vehicles bullet proof.

Then there’s the X-Craft (search), a large catamaran currently being built in Seattle. Though it rises above the water’s surface, its hull stays under the sea, allowing for greater stability and higher speeds in shallow-water operations.

To date, there are about 40 ONR projects completed or in progress, six of which are known to be in use in Iraq, according to Blesse — the liaison between scientists inventing the technology and the military.

“You can’t explain that satisfaction,” said Blesse of his role in helping the troops. “Technology is saving lives.”

Fleet Week activities run through Tuesday.