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Think small to think big

Unmanned Warrior Foyer Day
29 June 2016
Journalists joined military and civilian staff at Navy Command HQ in Portsmouth to glimpse into the future of warfare in the air, on the surface and underwater, and to see how the Royal Navy is encouraging the development of new technology and techniques.

A task group in miniature was displayed in the atrium of Leach Building, while out in the shadow of harbour training ship HMS Bristol was a tiny aircraft carrier – the sort you can tow on a trailer behind a family car.

This was a chance for key Royal Navy and Civil Service personnel to be brought up-to-date with the staggering possibilities that technology has opened up, much of it taking the man or woman out of the danger zone.

Opened by Rear Admiral Paul Bennett (Assistant Chief of Naval Staff – Capability), the ‘foyer day’ featured more than 25 firms and organisations, with a variety of aircraft, boats and submersibles to attract the curious.

There were systems that you could deploy from a small boat which will search for and destroy mines. There were craft that you could drop over the side of a ship, leaving them to loiter mid-ocean for weeks or months, gathering data from their surroundings and beaming the information back to base.

There was a scale model of an artificial acoustic target – the real thing is hardly massive at 5.5 metres – that mimics the size and characteristics of submarines.

So rather than borrow a full-sized boat with a crew to hone your anti-submarine skills, you could send this torpedo-sized doppelganger out and it will ‘sound’ (on sonar) and behave like a submarine – just programme in the acoustic profile and off it goes.

One strong theme was that of mastering the elements – getting the most out of good kit and good people by gaining a detailed knowledge of the operating environment.

As one young Naval officer said, imagine a frigate or a destroyer as a rough table; perfectly serviceable and will do the job, but a deeper understanding of the sea and sky around it adds a veneer for a better result. 

And environmental concerns were also to the fore; many devices used little or no fuel, and at least one manufacturer proudly drew attention to the ‘marine mammal mitigation’ aspect of its product.

Down on the Whale Island waterfront were a couple of boats that are both test-beds and capable systems in their own right. One – BAE Systems’ Pacific 950 Jekyll – was typical of the wow factor on display. With a range of over 100 miles and speeds of some 50 knots, the rigid inflatable boat bristles with cameras, can operate a towed array and ‘talks’ directly to the mother ship.

It can be programmed to operate alone in poor conditions (no operator to get cold, tired, wet or seasick), could patrol a harbour or gas rig, or be deployed as part of a forward picket line.

It can follow a pre-determined navigation track while employing collision-avoidance algorithms, and can also be used as a conventional manned craft. And perched on the RIB, on just about the smallest flight deck imaginable – roughly the size of a dining table – was a tiny unmanned aerial vehicle.

Come the autumn the focus of activity moves along the South Coast, and to Wales and Scotland, allowing firms to demonstrate their systems in less benign conditions during Unmanned Warrior, to be held in conjunction with the regular Exercise Joint Warrior.

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