The Ministry of Defence has awarded a £60m contract to defence firm Leonardo to design and develop a cutting-edge uncrewed helicopter.
Less than a third of the weight of the navy’s current airborne submarine hunter, the Merlin helicopter, it could provide an innovative alternative to existing aircraft for tracking adversary submarines.
Trials will test the capability of the aircraft to drop ‘sonobuoys’ – small tube-shaped buoys that track and communicate submarine activity – enabling the aircraft to alert a crewed helicopter and call for support if a submarine is located.
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Cost-effective to run, the platform will also reduce exposure of Royal Navy crews to potential threats.
Project Proteus will support up to 100 highly-skilled engineering jobs at Leonardo’s Yeovil site.
Leonardo will test it on lengthy and demanding anti-submarine warfare patrols – currently performed by Merlin Mk2 helicopters – but other potential uses will also be investigated, including evacuating casualties.
Turning to drone helicopters, would mean crews wouldn’t need to swap due to fatigue, fuel costs could be reduced, while the crewed aircraft could be used for other critical tasks.
Proteus – named after a mythological Greek god of the sea – is due to take its first flight in 2025.
The Royal Navy’s director develop, Rear Admiral James Parkin, said: ‘Proving the benefits of larger uncrewed aircraft, rotary and fixed wing, will be key to understanding whether such aircraft can effectively contribute to future Royal Navy capabilities, particularly for anti-submarine warfare.’
Minister for Defence Procurement, Jeremy Quin, said: ‘The global threat is changing, and it is crucial we remain at the forefront of defence innovation.
‘Exploring cutting-edge, new defence capabilities through programmes with key British manufacturers, will help to ensure our Armed Forces are equipped to deal with the latest threats.’
Capable of carrying a large payload, combined with the ability to operate in harsh environmental conditions, the aircraft could also be used across a range of requirements.
Beyond anti-submarine warfare, the project will address other potential uses including ship-to-ship resupply and casualty evacuation.