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Future of minehunting sails into Dartmouth

The Navy’s leaders of tomorrow were shown the possible future of minehunting when a robot boat sailed into the spiritual home of the officer corps.

Remote-controlled Apollo sailed past sights sailors have known for decades and berthed next to training ship – and former minehunter – HMS Hindostan so cadets from Britannia Royal Naval College could look over the futuristic Anglo-French marvel.

When the current generation of mine countermeasures vessels – Hunt and Sandown-class ships – are eventually retired, they are more than likely to be replaced by partially-crewed or fully-automated craft.

The RN’s technology trials teams have already been working with Halcyon, a 12-metre-long unmanned trials boat which can launch and recover small submersibles to find and destroy mines as part of a £117m joint project with the French to develop a system to keep ‘the man out of the minefield’.

The first of a kind

The next step up is USV (Unmanned Surface Vessel) Apollo, demonstrated by defence firm Thales to the Royal Navy’s leaders of tomorrow.

The company has turned part of the Royal Marines’ old 539 Assault Squadron base at Turnchapel in Plymouth into a maritime technology centre for developing unmanned boats and submersibles.

Apollo is conducting trials off the Devon coast, involving trailing its minehunting sonar array – the bright yellow torpedo-esque device stored aft – through the Channel.

The trials team took a break from those tests to demonstrate Apollo to Officer Cadets next to Hindostan previously Sandown-class minehunter HMS Cromer.

She was designed in the mid-to-late-80s and was, metre for metre, the most expensive warship in the world.

Three decades later and former RN clearance diving officer John Hunnibell, who’s now trials manager for Thales at Turnchapel, explained that Apollo was the “the first of a kind” of vessels “capable of detecting, classifying and disposing of mines and bombs at sea – without having a human operator anywhere within a minefield.”

Not only can Apollo be programmed to search for mines in a specific patch of water – and neutralise any explosive devices it finds in that stretch – but it is designed to avoid obstacles or other vessels operating in the same waters.

“It’s being trialled and tested right now on the doorstep of their college – emphasising to them the degree of development in maritime autonomy and the very real prospect of them operating this equipment in the course of their careers.”

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