Cutting-edge firms urged to take part 
in navy robot wars

NEW ERA A ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle is launched off the flight deck of RFA Cardigan Bay in the Gulf while below, an unmanned minehunter is tested in Portsmouth waters Pictures: L(Phot) Dan Rosenbaum and LA(Phot Nicky Wilson
NEW ERA A ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle is launched off the flight deck of RFA Cardigan Bay in the Gulf while below, an unmanned minehunter is tested in Portsmouth waters Pictures: L(Phot) Dan Rosenbaum and LA(Phot Nicky Wilson
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FIRMS at the cutting edge of science have been challenged by the Royal Navy to take part in its first ever robot wars.

And companies based in Portsmouth are now being urged to step up to the plate.

The head of the navy – First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas – is challenging academics, scientists and technology firms to show off hi-tech systems which could revolutionise naval warfare.

In October next year the most promising of those systems will be put to the test during a fortnight-long war game around Scotland, alongside regular navy, army and air forces.

Councillor Donna Jones, the leader of Portsmouth City Council, says businesses in and around the city should be grabbing the opportunity.

‘I would encourage all companies in the area to take up this offer,’ she said.

‘I really welcome the First Sea Lord’s challenge on this.

‘It’s about saying to the private sector, the public sector, students, educational establishments – if you’ve got an idea, tell us about it and if you’ve got the know-how, show us.

‘We have got lots of companies here in the Solent region, particularly on Portsdown Hill where there are 15 companies working together on this sort of research and development.

‘This is exactly the sort of thing they should be getting involved in and I fully support it.’

The Royal Navy has recently formed its first squadron for pilotless aircraft – 700X at Culdrose in Cornwall – which operates ‘eye in the sky’ ScanEagle reconnaissance planes.

It is also experimenting with remote-controlled minehunters, and is buying four ‘wave gliders’ – underwater gliders which run for up to four months gathering data about the ocean.

The fleet’s robotics officer Commander Steve Prest believes these are just the first steps into the world of maritime autonomous systems – to give naval robots their proper title.

‘This could fundamentally change the way the Royal Navy does its business,’ he said.

‘I compare it with the change from the battleship era to the age of the aircraft carrier.

‘People get excited about the future – they ask how real this is.

‘Technologically, we’re pretty close.

‘But autonomous systems are not going to replace warships – a warship can hunt submarines, tackle piracy, catch drug smugglers, provide disaster relief and act as an ambassador for the UK.

‘A robot can’t do all that.’

The First Sea Lord, who is eager to tap robotic technology for use on what he calls ‘3D’ missions – dull, dirty and dangerous – wants his navy to set the pace for the rest of the world, hence his challenge to industry.

‘The Royal Navy will lead – and win – through the innovative and robust exploitation of maritime autonomous systems,’ he said.

‘They open up a new world of possibilities.

‘We have an enormous well of potential, sitting there, waiting to be tapped.’

The systems of companies and organisations which rise to the challenge will be tested on a Royal Navy warship in 2016.

Those will be followed by a series of demonstrations, trials and experiments will carried out at the Joint Warrior exercise in the autumn of the same year, for which Cdr Prest has high hopes.

‘I’d love to see an unmanned aircraft spotting something and sending another unmanned vehicle – a boat or a submersible – to investigate and provide quality information for a commander to enable an attack being ordered if necessary,’ he added.

‘We are providing the opportunity. The challenge is for industry to show us what they can do.

‘They’re the ones with the good ideas.

‘That’s why we’re seeking innovation from our allies, academia, industry and especially, the small and medium-sized enterprises who are active in this area of technology.

‘Before the iPad, no-one thought they needed something like it. Now everyone has one.

‘Someone out there will have the iPad for autonomous naval systems.’