Royal Navy's self-driving speedboat takes to the Thames

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The MAST unmanned surface vessel (USV) has made its public debut on the Thames(Credit: Royal Navy)

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The Royal Navy's latest seagoing robot took to the waves today in the heart of London. Accompanied by patrol boat HMS Archer, the unmanned 32-ft (9.7-m) Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) autonomous speedboat negotiated traffic on the Thames estuary between Tower Bridge and Westminster bridge as part of the run-up to the Unmanned Warrior naval exercises.

Today's trial marks the public debut of the unmanned surface vessel (USV). It is based on the Bladerunner hull which sees a deep-vee catamaran shape with a foil between the hulls to allow for increased stability while planing at high speed. It's being developed by Portchester-based ASV Ltd as a testbed for new technologies, as well as for studying new tactics for robotic craft.

The MAST is not designed to carry weapons, but rather for surveillance and reconnaissance roles. It can operate in a number of modes ranging from remote control to full autonomy, but it differs from other USVs in that it's made to operate autonomously at high speeds. In addition, it has avoidance algorithms that not only allow it to negotiate crowded waterways, but do so in compliance with internationally mandated collision regulations.

However, for today's runabout the MAST had a coxswain on board ready to take control in the event of an emergency in the crowded metropolitan waterway.

The MAST will be one of over 40 robotic craft, which will take part in Unmanned Warrior 2016, which is scheduled to take place in coming months off the coast of West Wales, North West Scotland, and the Western Isles. Part of the Joint Warrior fleet naval exercises, it's billed as the largest of its kind ever conducted and emphasizes Anti-Submarine Warfare; Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance; Command and Control; Hydrographic and Geointelligence; and Mine Countermeasures (MCM).

"This is a chance to take a great leap forward in Maritime Systems," says Fleet Robotics Officer Commander Peter Pipkin. "Not to take people out of the loop but to enhance everything they do, to extend our reach, our look, our timescales, our efficiency using intelligent and manageable robotics at sea."

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