Navy’s ‘drone’ boats will keep sailors safe

BAE Systems' new unmanned boat
BAE Systems' new unmanned boat

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A HI-TECH driverless ‘drone’ boat is being developed in Portsmouth – and could be used on the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers.

The modified rigid inflatable boats will be able to travel at more than 38 knots (44mph) and operate up to 40km away from their parent ship, enabling high-risk manoeuvres to be carried out while keeping sailors safe.

The technology, created in Portsmouth by BAE Systems in partnership with unmanned craft specialists ASV, is designed to be fitted to existing Pacific 24 Ribs, which will be used by Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers and is already used on the navy’s Type 23 frigates and Type 45 destroyers.

Les Gregory, product and training services director at BAE, said: ‘This technology delivers an extremely robust and fast-moving unmanned boat that is able to perform a number of surveillance and reconnaissance roles, even when operating at high speed or in choppy water.’

The vessel has an array of sensors, including a navigation radar, 360-degree panoramic infra-red camera array and laser range-finder. As well as being autonomous, they can be remote-controlled by crew on land, from the ship by a hand-held controller or piloted as usual.

Dan Hook, managing director of ASV, said: ‘The algorithms we’re developing with BAE Systems allow the boat to perform complex missions and navigate through waters avoiding collisions. This gives it the flexibility and sophistication to operate in a number of different tactical roles, whether it’s patrolling areas of interest, providing surveillance and reconnaissance ahead of manned missions, or protecting larger ships in the fleet.’

Portsmouth City Council leader Donna Jones said home-grown technological advances like this were ‘helping to put Portsmouth and the Solent on the map’ for having some of the best research and development in the maritime industry.’

A navy spokeswoman said: ‘The unmanned technology is designed as a retrofit to the Pacific 24 Rib, however the Royal Navy has not yet made a decision on the new technology.

‘The manned boats are already deployed across Type 23 frigates and Type 45 destroyers, and will go on the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers once they enter service.’