Unmanned Warrior puts the future of marine warfare to the test

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Watchkeeper is one of the autonomous systems participating in Unmanned Warrior(Credit: Royal Navy)

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What will the Royal Navy look like in 2036? This month's Unmanned Warrior 2016 exercise taking place off the West Coast of Scotland might provide some of the answers. The Navy's first ever large scale demonstration of marine robotic systems not only showcases new technology, but tests the ability of unmanned vehicles to work with one another as well as with conventional naval ships.

The brainchild of then First Sea Lord Admiral Zambellas in 2014, Unmanned Warrior is part of Joint Warrior – a tri-service exercise involving forces from Britain, NATO and allied nations. Including 5,700 personnel, 31 warships, and almost 70 aircraft, it's a major international effort to develop tactics and skills to deal with conflicts in the air, on the surface, underwater, and in amphibious operations.

Unmanned Warrior assesses the rapidly emerging autonomous and remote controlled technologies that could play a major part in wars of the future. With operations spread over the West Coast of Scotland and West Wales, Unmanned Warrior is playing host to over 50 aerial, surface and underwater Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) as they explore the areas of surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and mine countermeasures.

Unmanned Warrior is operating in four ranges: The Hebrides around Benbecula in the Western Isles and Stoneway to the north, the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (BUTEC) at the Kyle of Lochalsh by Skye, and Applecross, where dummy minefields have been laid down.

The machines used in the exercise are a remarkable spectrum of aircraft, surface vessels, and underwater craft. The star of the show is the British Army's Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operated by the Royal Artillery 47th Regiment, which is not only part of the tests, but also provides support for ships heading for Joint Warrior.

Other aircraft include the hand-launchable Black Star winged drone, the Schiebel Camcopter S100 mini helicopter, the US Navy's NRQ 21 fixed wing UAV, the twin engined Sea Hunter, self-landing unmanned aerial vehicles, the Boeing ScanEagle with a new visual detection and ranging system, and the pilot-optional Leonardo Solo helicopter.

One craft of particular interest is the Blue Bear Blackstart fixed wing UAV, which is being used as a communications link to mission control in the Command and Control centers. The latter are mostly a collection of undistinguished white ISO containers built for portability, but they can handle data feeds from 40 different systems at once.

One of these centers is aboard the support ship MV Northern River, which did double duty as the target of a "pirate attack." Watchkeeper helped foil this mock attack before going on to catch a "smuggler" by following him as he drove off after collecting stolen goods from an accomplice on the beach.

In addition to the flying drones, Unmanned Warrior also hosts a fleet of robotic surface boats and submersibles. There's the Pacific 950, a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) equipped with a remote control kit, thermal imaging and all-around vision, so it can act as a watchdog for ships at anchor or making slow passages through harbors. Then there's the Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) for evaluating new robotic technologies, and the Hydrographic Survey, which is using Sea Gliders and Wave Gliders to study the sea bottom and monitor salinity, temperature, and how these change with depth.

For the minehunting challenge, actual Royal Navy minehunter ships were used as they tested the Remus 100 and Remus 600 robotic submersibles with advanced sonar for seeking out dummy mines. In addition, the Remus are designed to be lightweight and easily customizable, so they can be quickly adapted to different tasks. In addition, the challenge tested unmanned surface minesweepers, such as the Atlas ARCIMIS.

"The technologies demonstrated in Unmanned Warrior have the potential to fundamentally change the future of Royal Navy operations just as the advent of steam propulsion or submarines did," says Royal Navy Fleet Robotics Officer Commander Peter Pipkin. "This is a chance to take a great leap forward in Maritime Systems – not to take people out of the loop, but to enhance everything they do, extending our reach and efficiency using intelligent robotics at sea."

Unmanned Warrior and Joint Warrior run until October 20.

The Royal Navy video below discusses the importance of the event.

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