We've all heard a lot about autonomous cars and there's been plenty written about drones taking to the air, but we've not seen so much discussion about boats, or autonomous watercraft.

BAE Systems has been working on autonomous naval technologies, in a project that has sprung up surprisingly quickly. The idea is to give naval forces an unmanned capability for a wide range of roles - but dealing with surface vessels, rather than underwater, where remote controlled vechicles have been around for some time. 

One of the things that makes this a quick-development project for BAE Systems, is that it isn't starting from scratch: it's designed to be a simple solution to convert existing RIBs - rigid inflatable boats - that are already approved for use with the navy. That means the craft itself doesn't need to be approved, only the systems that convert it.

BAE SystemsRS44395_Unmanned P950 RIB in the Solent

That system is designed as a "black box" that can be fitted into an existing RIB, comprising all the brains, linked to optics, radar and cameras, rather like a self-driving car. That lets the boat see and navigate on the surface, but it retains the pre-existing engines and controls.

The unmanned craft can then be run via remote control from another vessel, like a Destroyer, it can operate as a "mule" driving itself, or it can be manually driven as normal. In the photo above there's a UAV on it too - although this is an example of what it could be used for, rather it being a permanent fixture.

The advantage of having an unmanned boat, of course, is that you don't need to put sailors or marines in harm's way. While you can use aircraft in a similar way, the costs of operating a RIB are much lower, letting you have something in the water to look in places where you might not want to put a person.

There's a number of scenarios for an autonomous boat. It could be used, for example, to watch the blindside of a ship that you're about to board, such as in anti-piracy operations. This is currently often done by helicopter, but using an autonomous boat puts eyes on the target at much lower cost.

A second use case would be in reconnaissance, sent out ahead of a ship where conditions favour the enemy, such as in canals or close straits that could be easily mined or a location for land-based ambush. The RIB could see much better than a human thanks to the advanced optics, as well as be equipped with things like mine sweeping or submarine detection equipment.

Sticking to that theme of not putting people in harm's way, another advantage of an autonomous boat is that you don't have to recover it if conditions are bad. Where you would want to get souls back on board, you could leave an autonomous craft in the water for several of days if the sea conditions were bad. Once things are calm again, you wake it up and bring it home.

BAE SystemsRS44394_Unmanned Capability scenario

When it comes to naval applications, none of this happens without human intervention. The idea isn't to have a remote weaponised platform - and BAE Systems told us that the navy saw no need for weapon systems on this type of craft – but it will become a tool in wider combined operations. That means it's something for mission commanders to control, in coordination with other operational assets.

Autonomous boats might sound like something of the future, but the capability has already been demonstrated by BAE Systems and there will be testing later in October 2016 with the Royal Navy to see exactly how they fit into the picture.