An autonomous boat worked alongside a Royal Navy warship, transmitting imagery from the vessel to the ship for the first time during a series of demonstrations.
Type 23 frigate HMS Argyll used its combat system to work with an unmanned Pacific 24 sea boat in trials at London’s Docklands.
Developed by BAE Systems, the PAC24 is funded by NavyX – the Royal Navy’s Autonomous Hardware Accelerator funded by the Defence Transformation Fund announced earlier this year.
The first trials, held yesterday and continuing this week, are NavyX’s first live trial, demonstrating the success of joined-up working with industry partners.
The boat’s integration with an active warship shows its potential for future missions including anti-piracy operations, border control and force protection.
The PAC24 is the standard sea boat for the Royal Navy and is used by Royal Marines, Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Ministry of Defence Police.
During the trials, technologists from BAE and the Royal Navy, along with Defence and Science Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and autonomous systems suppliers L3Harris, demonstrated how the autonomous version of a PAC24 boat could make naval missions more sustainable, more effective and safer.
Commander Sean Trevethan, Programme Director for NavyX, said: “This is much more than an autonomous surface vessel demonstration for the Royal Navy. What we are doing is the first step of exploiting system architecture in a complex warship to integrate an unmanned system into the ship.
“This ensures the system and its payload fully contribute to the warfighting capability of the ship.
“Ultimately this will change the way we fight, through integrated command and control, and lead to the development of new tactics, techniques and procedures.
“The PAC24 RIB is well-known to the Royal Navy and has a lot of potential in terms of its payload and deployment as an unmanned system. The Royal Navy is excited at the prospect of developing this capability.”
The version of the autonomous PAC24 boat trialled this week at the Defence & Security Equipment International conference had been modified for optional unmanned operations and fitted with additional sensors. At 7.8m long, the vessel has a speed of 38 knots and can be either remotely controlled or used in an autonomous mode.
Mike Woods, chief technologist for BAE Systems’ Maritime Services business, said: “This technology represents a huge step forward in the interaction between human and machine, combining sophisticated autonomous technology with human capabilities to overcome many of the challenges faced in difficult conditions at sea.
The trials of the PAC24 boat were only one aspect of the Royal Navy’s innovation work at the week-long conference held at London’s ExCel Centre.
Plymouth-based HMS Argyll hosted Defence Secretary Ben Wallace who unveiled the next-generation unmanned system – the Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST). Developed by Dstl, MAST was involved in demonstrations with Argyll and the PAC24 boat.
The latest Royal Navy Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) project was also unveiled this week. ASW Spearhead, developed by the Navy’s Maritime Capability team, will look to make anti-submarine warfare more effective in operations and encourage a faster timeline of products being developed and put into use on the front line.
Six projects are underway to exploit and look at new technologies and platforms.
During his opening speech, the Royal Navy’s most senior sailor, First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin spoke about the importance of new technology.
He said: "We are enjoying the buzz and busyness of operations at the moment. We are doing all the things we normally do and much more.
"We are reaching out and supporting our partners, enforcing UN sanctions and ensuring freedom of navigation continues.
"We are preparing for the future and making better than expected progress with our first flying trials on HMS Queen Elizabeth.
"We are in an era of rapid technological change and we need to embrace, match and utilise this pace of change.”