The Royal Navy has taken a major step toward the use of autonomous vessels in day-to-day service. During recent trials in Plymouth, the operations room of the frigate HMS Argyll controlled an unmanned Pacific 24 rigid inflatable boat (RIB) while at sea.
During the week-long trials, conducted by the Royal Navy’s technology arm NavyX and BAE Systems, the vessel’s onboard cameras and sensors provided constant data to the Argyll, with a temporary operations center set up in the ship’s hangar. For the first time, the RIB’s control system was integrated into the ship’s operations room, meaning it could be controlled and steered from the same location as the rest of the ship’s assets.
In addition to remotely controlling the Pacific 24 from up to 10 miles away, the ship sent the vessel sets of tasks to perform autonomously, such as identifying targets in the water and signaling its remote camera and weapon station for target tracking. (For safety reasons, there were still sailors aboard the ship while it operated by remote control.)
“This was a great first step in the integration of fully autonomous vessels into Royal Navy warships,” said Lieutenant Commander Rob Manson, NavyX’s chief test officer. “What we achieved with these trials was to demonstrate that systems such as autonomous and unmanned technology control systems can be successfully introduced into our existing fleet.” The last two years have seen crucial advances in unmanned operations and we are excited about the future.”
For HMS Argyll, it was an opportunity for the crew to see how an autonomous semi-rigid could be used on deployment. The advanced vessel was able to perform reconnaissance tasks and demonstrate how it could counter potential threats.
“Frigates are the workhorses of the Royal Navy, regularly conducting anti-submarine warfare, counter-piracy and humanitarian operations,” said Lt. Keaton Leyland-Jones, warfare officer on the Argyll. “The Argyll may be the oldest frigate in the fleet, but numerous upgrades to her capabilities have allowed us to move to the forefront of maritime warfare. Autonomous technology such as the Pac24 demonstrates this, increasing our versatility and enhancing our ability to carry out crucial missions, gaining an edge over the aggressor.”