UK’s first drone testing hub to be built in Portsmouth area

Unmanned boats like these will be using the Solent as a key testing ground         IMAGE: BAE Systems
Unmanned boats like these will be using the Solent as a key testing ground IMAGE: BAE Systems
  • Project is expected to cost £1.5m
  • It will become the nation’s first drone testing site
  • Everything from unmanned boats, air vehicles and systems will be trialled
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A STATE-OF-THE-ART drone testing facility – the first of its kind in the UK – is to be opened in the Portsmouth area.

The Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has awarded defence giant BAE Systems £457,000 to design and deliver the nation’s first autonomous systems testing service.

Autonomous and unmanned systems are widely regarded as a vital technology for the future, but there is a great deal of work to be done if we are to unlock its true potential

Frank Cotton, BAE System’s combat systems head of technology

A team of tech and defence firms, specialising in unmanned vehicles, will combine with the University of Southampton to make the idea a reality.

Together the Solent LEP and other partner groups are pumping in £1.5m into the trailblazing project, which supporters have said will put the Portsmouth area squarely on the map for drone innovation.

Ian Millen, chairman of the Solent LEP, was excited by the project.

He said: ‘The Solent is the heart of the UK’s marine and maritime sector and the assets we possess enable the region, its businesses and the UK economy to compete globally.

‘From the port of Southampton, the most productive port in Europe, to Portsmouth Naval Base, headquarters of the Royal Navy and soon to be home to the largest aircraft carriers in UK history, the Solent is used to making waves on an international stage.

‘The key to this success has always been founded in innovation and, through our investment to create the UK’s first autonomous systems testing service in the Solent, the LEP will ensure that the area and its businesses, large and small, continue to be a driving force for UK innovation for years to come.’

The new service is set to be ready for use later this year.

Customers – both commercial and military – will be able to conduct trials and test systems such as unmanned boats, air vehicles and autonomous sensors in a safe, controlled and realistic environment in the Solent. Backed by a comprehensive safety case, the service will make use of a secure maritime communications network and a mobile command and control centre, featuring the same technology BAE provides to the Royal Navy.

Among the other organisations lending their weight to the plan include Portchester-based drone firm ASV Global, Blue Bear Systems Research, Marine Electronic Systems and SeeByte.

Frank Cotton, BAE’s combat systems head of technology, said the Solent had a ‘growing number of world-class’ companies specialising in drone research.

He added: ‘Autonomous and unmanned systems are widely regarded as a vital technology for the future, but there is a great deal of work to be done if we are to unlock its true potential and understand how they are best integrated into wider systems.

‘A wide range of organisations from the defence and commercial sectors, along with academia, have ambitions for this technology and this unique service will allow them to find valuable ways to use it whilst furthering its development. The new service will be ready for use later this year and customers will be able to conduct trials and test systems such as unmanned boats, air vehicles.

Last year the Royal Navy staged the world’s first, large-scale demonstration of maritime robotic systems as part of its Unmanned Warrior exercise.

It saw drones from across the globe – and those built in the Portsmouth area – being put to the test in a range of military-style scenarios.