Royal Navy tests hi-tech drones with the Met Police to track drug dealers and smugglers at sea
SOARING high above the Channel, could this sophisticated little drone be the latest weapon in the battle to crackdown on drug dealers and smugglers?
That’s the hope of the Royal Navy as they put the state-of-the-art pieces of kit through its paces on its newest class of ships.
The hi-tech Puma is the latest item being tested by sailors in a move the Royal Navy hopes will boost the fleet’s ability to tackle criminals.
Puma’s testbed was the Portsmouth-based patrol ship HMS Tamar, which joined the navy’s fleet in December.
At four-and-half foot long, with a wingspan of 9ft and weighing as much as six bags of sugar, Puma can fly for up to two hours and monitor 270 square miles of ocean – larger than the size of Greater Manchester.
Over the past few weeks, Tamar has joined forces with the Royal Marines and Met Police as the ship practices for ‘constabulary duties’ when she deploys for the first time this summer.
Although the warship has a flight deck, she doesn’t carry a helicopter on a regular basis – there’s no hangar, so Merlin and Wildcat helicopters only use the ship for refuelling, collecting supplies or making a short stop.
So navy top brass feel that Puma could fulfil some of the helicopter’s intelligence-gathering role – with its 50-times zoom camera it feeds live footage back to a mother ship at ranges up to a dozen miles.
Building on their experiences aboard HMS Albion in the Mediterranean last year, a team from 700X Naval Air Squadron – the Fleet Air Arm’s only pilotless squadron – brought their drone to Tamar.
‘We were under pressure to perform,’ said Lieutenant Ash Loftus, Puma flight commander. ‘There are many additional challenges in preparing and launching safety from a ship.
‘While it’s a relatively small aircraft, it has a large wing and requires some skill from the operator launching it from the ship.
‘We completed 100 per cent of the tasks required of us by the ship. We were often flying out of line of sight to approach vessels, using the system’s cameras for identification purposes.
‘We’d be in close communications with the officer of the watch and we were able to report back successfully on the identification of vessels.’
Puma is relatively cheap – certainly much cheaper than sending a helicopter up – easy to launch and recover, is difficult for foes to spot and keeps the ship out of harm’s way. In short, Puma gave Tamar ‘eyes in the sky’.
‘It was of great use for investigating nearby vessels of interest,’ said Lieutenant Commander Michael Hutchinson.
‘We could easily see just how useful such a system could be for any future anti-piracy or counter-smuggling operations. It’s a significant enhancement of the ship’s capabilities and bodes well for the future.’
Tamar and her four sisters are being deployed around the world on long-term missions, operating from overseas ports and bases, patrolling regions of key strategic interest and importance to the UK.
Typically the vessels will work with Royal Marines boarding teams – a 50-man mess has been built into the ships to accommodate them.
But there may be occasions when Tamar may be called on to work with local law enforcement agencies – such as her sister HMS Medway has been doing in the Caribbean, striking at drug-runners with the US Coast Guard.
During the combined training with the Metropolitan Police in the Channel. law enforcement officers used Tamar as their ‘floating headquarters’, turning her into a command and control vessel to marshal their RIB speed boats.
‘Working with the police proved to be a new experience for all parties concerned – the main fruit was a much greater understanding of each other’s capabilities and how to most effectively make use of these depending on the operational context,’ Lieutenant Commander Hutchinson added.
Over the past 12 months, the navy has been testing its fleet of test drones in the Arctic Circle, the Mediterranean and around the UK.
They started in Norway in March when the Mast13 crewless boat, now known as Madfox, successfully sailed into HMS Albion while being controlled by operators deep in the ship.
It was the first time the boat’s artificial intelligence system to control all of this tech was integrated in a Royal Navy warship.
Fast-forward eight months and the next phase of AAF trials saw Malloy T-150 heavy lift drones drop supplies to 40 Commando – taking off from Albion and flying inland to resupply Royal Marines on the battlefield.
The three-month period of tests were backed by Portsmouth-based destroyer, HMS Dragon.
Last week, the navy agreed a £25m deal for three ‘world-class’ autonomous minesweepers.
The crewless vessels are set to one day replace the Senior Service’s fleet of glass-hulled minehunters in Portsmouth.
It’s hoped drone boats would help to protect sailors from dealing with deadly explosives at sea.
The autonomous system, known as a Combined Influence Sweep, can defeat modern digital sea mines which can pose risks by detecting and targeting passing ships and submarines.
The tech can be controlled remotely, either based at sea or on land, and can be deployed quickly when needed.
Dorset-based maritime firm Atlas Elektronik UK has been awarded the multi-million pound deal to build the vessels.