Royal Navy eyes autonomous future

The future of the Royal Navy and how it could further embrace autonomous technology - including drones - will be unveiled at the DSEI show in London this week.

Outlined in the recent Defence Command Paper, the Royal Navy is focussed on investing in a more “innovative and automated fleet”.

Enhanced by a £24 billion increase in spending across four years, as announced by the prime minister last November, the Royal Navy aims to improve the sustainability, lethality and availability of its vessels.

Led by a design challenge for young engineers from UK Naval Engineering Science and Technology (UKNEST), the Royal Navy is developing a Future Autonomous Fleet programme that could shape how it operates over the next 50 years.

The future vision envisages drones based in the stratosphere to be launched at a moment’s notice, un-crewed fast attack crafts housing smaller autonomous boats, aircraft carriers propelled by both sea-based biofuels and renewable power, and an underwater flagship at the centre of the fleet.

Other conceptual ideas include the increased use of artificial intelligence to assist with low-level planning and underwater transport units carrying anything from munitions to food.

Although in the conceptual phase, the Navy says it is “on track” to implement one of these futuristic visions into reality “over the coming decade” in the form of Persistent Operational Deployment Systems (PODS).

PODS are interchangeable modules that can be fitted to the surface fleet. Similar in design to a shipping container, the PODS create the idea of a “plug and play” warship, said the Navy, and will enable ships of all sizes to be “more adaptable and versatile when deployed”.

Delivered using technology such as heavy-lift drones or autonomous boats, a ship will be able to receive the equipment it needs to be re-tasked quicker without the need to go into a port to collect it.

The PODS will house assets vital to supporting Navy operations. These may include an autonomous boat for surveillance and reconnaissance or quadcopter drones to deliver supplies, humanitarian aid and disaster relief stores or medical equipment.

Second sea lord, vice admiral Nick Hine said: “In a future scenario if we find ourselves unable to compete traditionally in terms of mass, we must think differently if we are to regain operational advantage.

“The young engineers who worked on this project are thinking radically and with real imagination and reflect how the Royal Navy is thinking too.”

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