UK: Autonomous ships join minehunting mothership for trials

A minehunting ‘mothership’ and autonomous vessels were trialled together for the first time in a milestone moment for the future of the UK’s mine counter measure operations.

Royal Navy

The three boats joined RFA Stirling Castle in Portland, Dorset, for a series of tests as the navy looks to adopt autonomous minehunting systems.

Royal Navy Motor Boats Apollo, Hydra and Hazard zipped around the water off the south coast as part of initial loading trials with the recently-purchased Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship.

Royal Navy

The trials were carried out alongside partners Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), the procurement arm of the Ministry of Defence.

The main aim was to prove autonomous vessels could be hosted on board Stirling Castle and eventually controlled or remotely-piloted from the ship. This will be the norm for the ship when it officially joins the RFA fleet following a naming ceremony in August and deploys on operations.

Using autonomous and uncrewed equipment removes the threat to naval personnel by keeping them well away from the minefield, leaving robots systems to do the legwork. It also allows more extensive searches of the sea, according to the navy.

“These trials marks a key milestone in the delivery of the Royal Navy’s Mine Hunting Capability programme. Following her rapid procurement and delivery at the start of the year, RFA Stirling Castle has now embarked her first autonomous mine countermeasures systems,” Rear Admiral Ivan Finn, Director Navy Acquisition commented.

The navy’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials Team (MASTT) embarked on Stirling Castle to oversee the week-long trials and were pleased with the initial fusing of ship and autonomous boats.

“This is an important step in the incremental development of maritime autonomous systems, exploiting new technology to increase performance and reduce risk to sailors,” Andy Lapsley, DE&S Mine Hunting Capability (MHC) Team Leader, added.

Stirling Castle joined the Royal Auxiliary Fleet to act as a “mothership” for autonomous minehunting systems. When operational, the ship will launch and recover the vessels, as well as analyse the data they gather while scouring home waters for mines and underwater explosive devices.

In doing so, the ship and the autonomous boats will begin to replace traditional mine countermeasures vessels, instead exploiting a series of advanced payloads such as towed sonars and remotely-operated neutralisation systems from a Remote Command Centre.