Portsmouth firm's unmanned boats are 'the future' of naval warfare

New autonomous vessel system MAST-13 being put through its paces in Portsmouth Harbour. Picture: MoD
New autonomous vessel system MAST-13 being put through its paces in Portsmouth Harbour. Picture: MoD
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NEW technology developed in Portsmouth could allow boats to be controlled autonomously by the Royal Navy to identify threats and collect intel on enemy ships.

Upgrades to the systems of the Pacific 24 class of small boat, developed by BAE Systems in Portsmouth, means that these boats can now be deployed without any personnel on board.

New autonomous vessel system MAST-13 being put through its paces in Portsmouth Harbour. Picture: MoD

New autonomous vessel system MAST-13 being put through its paces in Portsmouth Harbour. Picture: MoD

The unmanned P24 can reach a top speed of 38 knots (43mph), operating for up to 45 hours at patrol speed – and can be switched back to manual at the press of a button.

Work to develop this system began in 2015, with BAE spending £2m on the project.

BAE’s chief technologist Mike Woods said: ‘This technology represents a huge step forward in the interaction between human and machine, combining sophisticated autonomous technology with human capabilities to overcome many of the challenges faced in difficult conditions at sea.

‘The boat keeps sailors out of harm’s way whilst allowing them to respond to the increasingly varied, often unpredictable scenarios they face every day, and aids faster decision making in complex and ambiguous situations.’

The Royal Navy is trialling unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) which could be used to protect their warships. Picture: Julian Hickman / Blue Harbour Creative Media

The Royal Navy is trialling unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) which could be used to protect their warships. Picture: Julian Hickman / Blue Harbour Creative Media

BAE is currently integrating the system with existing combat management systems, as it continues trials and weapons testing.

The boat will be operated by two people in the main warship’s operations room – with one person providing mission instructions for the boat, whilst the other operates the weapons system by remote control.

‘This is absolutely the future of naval warfare,’ Mr Woods added.

‘We saw what was happening in other sectors with UAVs and driverless cars, and knew that would eventually hit the maritime industry as well.’

At the Defence and Security Equipment International conference in London, the system was put through its paces, as a P24 RIB was demonstrated under remote control, for safety reasons, while feeding information back into the combat management systems of Type 23 warship HMS Argyll for the first time.

Through the NavyX programme, it is hoped that the boats could one day replace one of the two current manually operated P24s used in Type 23 frigates, with initial evaluations planned for March 2020.

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