This story tells about the future use of an intelligent agent system on a U.S. Submarine during an onboard fire in the year 2026. The Commanding Officer is briefing the Submarine Force Commander on the highlights of the crew’s recent deployment….
Admiral, I will now provide a briefing on the fire that USS NEW ENGLAND experienced during this deployment. The new intelligent agent system made an incredible difference in our damage control response. The system included thousands of sensors within the ship and on our sailors to support damage control. Of course, it is not the sensors that mattered so much as it was the system that put actionable information in front of our decision-makers without overwhelming them. You should know that, based on its performance throughout the deployment, I came to regard the intelligent agent as a trusted member of the crew who could make recommendations, respond to queries, and learn over time. This made the difference in getting the fire extinguished quickly, treating an injured sailor, and returning the ship to its front-line mission in less than 24 hours. I am certain that with our legacy damage control capability, we would have suffered significantly more personnel injury and equipment damage that would have required us to return to port for repairs.
At 0915 on 24 May 2026, while the ship was conducting training drills at periscope depth, the intelligent agent alerted the crew to a possible fire in the #1 AC power conditioner in the auxiliary machinery room thanks to flash and smoke sensors placed in every piece of electrical equipment on the ship and throughout every space. The smoke alarm sounded first, followed by the flash detector in the affected equipment. The intelligent agent recommended sounding the general alarm and the Officer of the Deck (OOD) concurred.
As the crew went to Damage Control stations, the agent automatically transmitted a pre-staged Operational Report 3/Navy Blue emergency message to higher authority and connected Damage Control Central to the Navy’s new Global Damage Control Hub at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNSY). We had real-time engineering expertise to assist ship’s force, and the shipyard had direct access to our onboard sensor network. This was particularly useful as we began to assess the extent of damage after the fire was extinguished, and with their technical help, we restored the damaged equipment to service within 24 hours.
A key feature of the intelligent agent system is that every sailor wears a sensor package embedded in their clothing that collects biometric, location, and other data in damage control situations. An example of that fabric is shown here on Lt. Smith. Data collection is activated in the intelligent agent whenever a sailor is on watch or in casualty situations like this one. In this way, the agent not only knows where every sailor and team is, but each sailor becomes a mobile multi-sensor node that feeds key information to decision-makers as they stand watch or fight casualties.
The agent reported that the Damage Control Team was stationed within five minutes and that the Initial Response Team was in the space taking immediate actions. Very soon though, the agent reported that the fire had spread to hull insulation, an unfortunate development since it made the fire harder to extinguish. Hose teams were deployed to the scene and adjacent spaces. The agent monitored the biometric stress levels of each team so that decision-makers would know when to send in fresh teams to relieve them as the situation developed. This is a key safety factor for managing teams under high physical stress that did not exist in legacy systems, and it helped our deciders make informed risk-tradeoffs.
One of the consequences of intelligent agent technology is that our Damage Control Team is smaller than legacy teams, yet more effective. Biofeedback sensors in the nozzleman’s clothing, and audio prompts and heads-up displays in the facemask help the remote Hose Director in Damage Control Central guide the nozzleman’s hose to the seat of the fire. This was formerly done by a physical sailor behind each nozzleman, which added a lot of friction in confined submarine spaces. Submarine crew size is largely determined by the number of sailors needed for damage control, so with fewer needs, extra sailors could be removed. Fewer sailors who have an Information Advantage are now more effective than previous crews.
Dozens of cameras in the auxiliary machine room and on each sailor helped decision-makers in Damage Control Central monitor the fire and the crew’s response. Damage Control Central monitored video of the Hose Team, a composite video of conventional and thermal camera modes superimposed with information enhancements, such as the names of sailors and textualized narratives of reports.
Intelligent agent technology made leap-ahead improvements to the Interior-Communications-Next system that the Force had installed five years ago. You can see a node diagram of the system during the fire in Figure 4. For decades, the Force relied on sound-powered phones. Now, all breathing apparatus is equipped with sound-powered, battery-assisted microphones, speakers and antennas connected to wireless/fiber-optic communications nodes. The system is actually more reliable than the legacy system in the absence of electrical power, and the quality of voice communications is vastly improved. The agent automatically textualizes all voice communications so that no communication is missed in the written record. Nothing like that existed before. An algorithm assesses the teamwork of the crew by monitoring for key words, tone, and voice inflections. Combined with the biometric data, the agent assesses the stress level of each sailor, and puts that information in front of decision-makers when it is needed.
This turned out to be vital when one of our sailors suffered an injury during the fire. It was the biometric data on the sailor’s clothing that first alerted the agent that his breathing and heart rate were approaching the bounds of his personal fitness threshold. After alerting the Damage Control Team Leader, relief was sent in to him and the corpsman was alerted for a possible casualty. As that was happening, a sensor told us that he was prone rather than standing. We knew he was in trouble and unable to communicate, so a rescue team was sent in to get him, without having to search the smoke-filled space since his location was known precisely. With a sailor is injured, the agent automatically connected us with the Navy Global Emergency Room at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, CA, another example of how globally distributed the team ended up being. The sailor’s biometric data was automatically sent to them, and when the corpsman hooked him up to an EKG, that information was sent as well. Our corpsman, the on-call doctor at Balboa, and the agent’s medical assistance algorithm collaboratively helped diagnose the sailor with a previously unidentified stress-induced asthma condition, and prescribed a protocol that stabilized him. This probably saved his life.
Soon after the injured sailor was out of the machine room the hose teams quickly brought the fire under control and got it extinguished. The ship was de-smoked and the atmosphere was restored to specification using monitoring equipment that is tied directly to the intelligent agent system. Engineers at PNSY helped us assess the damage to affected equipment, and the ship returned to its mission within 24 hrs. The injured sailor did not require evacuation.
This fire demonstrated the Information Advantage that the crew had throughout the fire. For the first time in my sea experience, Damage Control Central controlled the fire, anticipated resource needs, and monitored the crew’s response. Decision-makers were equipped to make much more informed decisions in this dynamic situation. It would not have been possible to put this fire out as effectively with legacy systems. The intelligent agent, a trusted member of my crew, can certainly be credited with saving a life, and restoring the ship to mission-service without having to return to port for repairs or personnel evacuation.
Part Two of this story, What an Intelligent Agent Brings to the Fight…, is coming soon.
Watch a video presentation of this story Information Advantage Improves Command Decision Making at Defense Innovation Days.