Last October, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy hosted the first-ever large-scale demonstration of marine robotic systems.
The exercise, known as the Unmanned Warrior Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) Demonstration Initiative, was billed as an opportunity for the Royal Navy to evaluate unmanned systems currently available around the world. The initiative was part of NATO’s “Joint Warrior,“ the largest military exercise in Europe.
As part of the initiative, which took place off the coast of West Wales and West Scotland, more than 50 different unmanned systems were deployed in the air, on the surface, and below the sea. The intention was to carry out tasks in an operationally realistic environment such as hunting submarines, detecting and destroying mine threats, and completing surveillance and intelligence-gathering roles.
The U.S. Navy also used the exercise to test out a sizeable contingent of 10 autonomous devices, including ocean gliders designed to gather oceanographic data, a waterside rapid deployment security system (WRDSS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and underwater devices capable of transmitting real-time information ashore via relay systems.
Such ongoing efforts to nurture international partnerships form a key part of the U.K.’s Defence Innovation Initiative.” The £800 million ($1.1 billion) fund is designed to facilitate the advancement of British defense capabilities and support the country’s technology sector.
One of the novel technologies deployed during the project was the Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) system, created by U.K. company ASV Global with support from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).
MAST, a 34-foot-long unmanned surface vessel (USV) system capable of completely autonomous navigation, was involved in several attack simulation exercises. These included defensive blocking and interception functions used to halt the progress of rapid inshore attack craft.
Another system on display was a USV manufactured by West Sussex-based AutoNaut. The platform is capable of deploying sensors for a range of applications over periods running to several months. It uses underwater wings known as “wave foils” to convert the pitch and roll of ocean waves into forward thrust, providing a number of benefits, including persistence, zero emissions, and near silence.
The AutoNaut was deployed as part of unmanned warriors’ anti-submarine warfare (ASW) theme. It formed part of a barrier of surface vehicles used to detect underwater threats at an area of operational importance (in this case, Stornoway Harbour in Scotland). The barrier successfully tracked underwater target vehicles and live submarines over a number of weeks, feeding information back into a remote operational commander.
As Dan Alldis, design manager at AutoNaut, explained, the USV deploys a “sophisticated command and control system,” which enables an operator to program it to carry out autonomous missions.
“An operator can log on to the vehicle anywhere in the world with an Internet connection and adjust the mission, receive data from onboard sensors, and control payloads,” Alldis told Robotics Business Review. “AutoNaut will also autonomously detect and avoid AIS signatures or exclusion zones programmed by an operator.”
“AutoNaut and other unmanned systems offer a cost-effective way of reducing risk and cost by removing an operator from dangerous, dirty, and dull environments,” he added.
Future of Royal Navy robotics
Looking ahead, Alldis was confident about prospects for ongoing deployment of devices, including the use of AutoNaut in Royal Navy applications, as well as sector growth in general. He revealed that recent investment from the Seiche Group has enabled the company to employ more staff and increase its production capacity in order to develop and deploy the AutoNaut “for longer with different applications.”
“We are looking to promote and deploy our unmoored MetOcean buoy capability, which can reduce cost compared to deploying and recovering moored buoys,” Alldis said. “AutoNaut can also reposition depending on meteorological or oceanographic phenomena, which isn’t possible with a tethered buoy. Over the next few months, we will be integrating wave measurement sensors and comparing the data to a traditional wave buoy.”
“AutoNaut is near silent,” he said. “So, it also makes an excellent platform from which to deploy underwater acoustic measurement systems. These hydrophone ‘arrays’ can be used for marine mammal monitoring and mitigation as well as detecting underwater and surface vessels in a defense or surveillance role.”