A significant step towards autonomous mine-hunting operations has been achieved after Royal Navy Motor Boat (RNMB) Apollo, an Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) delivered by Thales, completed a demanding series of Royal Navy and industry open water assurance trials.
Image courtesy Thales / © Ewan Lebourdais
It has recently been confirmed by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) that the trials were run in December 2022 by the Royal Navy Maritime Autonomous System Trials Team (MASTT), supported by Thales. Observing and approving the trials off Weymouth Bay were representatives from the UK Naval Authority and Technology Group (NATG) and the Mine Hunting Capability team from the MoD.
RNMB Apollo has successfully completed tests that prove remotely controlled uncrewed vessels can be operated by a team at a shore-based control station, completing a series of tasks, while retaining awareness of its course and position utilising line of sight communications systems. This is believed to be the first UK Military clearance of its kind.
The programme is delivering world leading maritime mine warfare capabilities, which will keep the UK and France at the forefront of naval autonomous systems technology. The delivery of uncrewed mine clearance platforms will allow the Royal Navy (RN) to continue their important role of keeping shipping lanes open without putting â sailors or crewed platforms into the threat area.
Fitted with a powerful combination of sensors, including radar, LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and electro-optical and infra-red cameras, the vessel’s position was continuously relayed to the command and control centre over a secure communications network.
This connection enabled the command and control software to merge the sensor inputs into a single (Coherent) tactical picture using Thales MCube mission management software. It also allows detection and tracking of other vessels and to take appropriate actions, including remotely controlled avoidance manoeuvres.
In service, these vessels will be capable of operating in national waters or being air-transported quickly across the world to hunt for mines in danger zones or secure sea lines of communications, while demonstrating high rates of reliability, autonomy and cybersecurity. They can be deployed and operated from ship and shore bases providing configurable and performant capability.
RNMB Apollo is one of the two pre-production Uncrewed Surface Vessels delivered to the Royal Navy and Marine nationale (French Navy) in December 2021 as part of the joint UK-France Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) programme which will bring autonomous mine hunting capability to the two respective Fleets.
With stage two of the contract now in the production phase, Thales is actively working with the customers and will be able to deliver full operating capability to both Nations in 2024.
Alex Cresswell, Chief Executive and Chairman, Thales UK, said:“As the first of their kind, these trials are a significant milestone in the path towards certification of autonomous maritime systems for operational use. They represent one of the first important steps in gaining trust in uncrewed vessels in a complex programme. The trial is a critical remote operation stepping stone towards autonomous mine hunting.” Alex Cresswell - Chief Executive and Chairman, Thales UK.
Gwendoline Blandin-Roger, Managing Director, Underwater Systems, Thales, said: “We have a long tradition of supporting the Royal Navy and Marine nationale in mine warfare, surface ship and underwater operations and we are very proud to be working with them to bring these game-changing autonomous systems into operational service.”