UK: Sail drones could serve as ‘eyes and ears’ for larger warships

Royal Navy sailors and ships have harnessed the technology of robot drones in a multi-national insight into potential future naval operations in the Gulf.

Two exercises were run – the first involving British and American ships and personnel, the second also involving the navies of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to see how the drones might be exploited by a multi-national task group.

Gulf birdlife flies past the sail drone and US-UK warships. Photo: Royal Navy

For the latter, seven ships – RFA Cardigan Bay, minehunter HMS Bangor, two US Navy fast patrol ships USS Hurricane and Chinook, Bahrani missile boats Al-Manama and Al-Fateh, and Saudi patrol vessel HMS Khalid – headed for waters off the Saudi coast. 

There the US-operated sail drones were launched from Cardigan Bay, which also served as the command ship for Bahrain-led Combined Task Force 152, one of four task forces organized under the Combined Maritime Forces. The naval drill enhanced interoperability by integrating new uncrewed technologies to monitor the sea lanes in the Arabian Gulf.

The drones, which resemble sailboards but are packed with sensors, do just that, according to the Royal Navy. Powered by the wind and the sun, they can remain at sea indefinitely – no need to refuel or refresh the crew.

“Flotillas of sail drones could serve as the ‘eyes and ears’ for larger warships, moving around the Gulf gathering intelligence, beaming it back in real time to ships and headquarters ashore,” the Royal Navy stated.

Captain Rashed Al-Ameen, commander of CTF 152, was impressed by the insight into the potential of crewless technology to support regular operations in the region. 

“It is so valuable to get these opportunities to really test how our forces from across different nations can work together with the uncrewed systems. It helps us better understand how to work with each other to boost regional security,” Ameen noted.

The RN initially worked with the sail drones back in March as part of a larger multi-national exercise, but the two autumn trials focused more on integrating the crewless and artificial intelligence systems with traditional warships, as well as staffs ashore in Bahrain.

Sensors on the robot craft were able to locate and identify training aides in the water and send imagery back to the operations rooms and headquarters with a view to using such crewless vessels in the future to monitor regional waters.

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Photo: Gulf birdlife flies past the sail drone and US-UK warships. Photo: Royal Navy