Autonomous Fleet concepts set course for Royal Navy's next 50 years
The Royal Navy has released an outline of its vision of how its Future Autonomous Fleet will operate over the next half century, including green aircraft carriers, underwater command centers, and robotic warships.
Based on a recent Defence Command Paper and a design challenge given to young engineers from the UK Naval Engineering Science and Technology (UKNEST), the list of concepts of the future Navy shows the service is continuing its strategy of making up for a shrunken fleet by relying on advanced technology that packs a bigger punch. In this case, it involves an increasing reliance on artificial intelligence and automation mixed with greater exploitation of the underwater realm.
The concepts put forward include the introduction of autonomous trimaran attack ships propelled by water jets that can also deploy smaller craft. These, like other vessels in the future fleet, would be very green, relying on energy harvested by wind turbines and then wirelessly beamed to the craft, heat from deep-sea thermal vents, or biofuels made from plankton gathered by the warships like whales.
Overhead, the Navy envisions drone balloon bases parked in the stratosphere, held up by helium-filled envelopes and covered with solar arrays. These can not only provide surveillance, but can deploy fast-strike drones that reach hypersonic speeds as they dive toward their target, then attack it with sea-skimming rail-gun projectiles and short-range lasers.
Meanwhile, below the waves, there are submarines that go beyond today's mix of attack and missile boats. These will include underwater transport units carrying supplies for military or humanitarian missions, reconnaissance units, craft with blended-wing bodies, and an underwater flagship with a bulbous hull and live brain corals coating the outer casing.
This flagship would maintain and deploy robotic hex units, which are underwater drones for ferrying crews to underwater craft, recon and navigation, neutralizing enemy drones, and locking onto enemy craft like limpets to detonate or simply disrupt the ship's system. They can even extend their range by latching onto Royal Navy ships to hitch a ride.
A more immediate goal is the development of what the Navy calls the Persistent Operational Deployment Systems (PODS), which are interchangeable modules for the surface fleet. Similar in concept to a shipping container, their purpose is to support a plug-and-play warship design, which would allow craft of any size to use the same modules for greater mission flexibility.
These PODS would be easy to swap out and could even be changed while at sea, allowing a ship that started out leaving port with a pod carrying an autonomous boat to arrive at its destination with heavy-lift drones, humanitarian supplies, a command center, or a medical unit.
"In a future scenario if we find ourselves unable to compete traditionally in terms of mass, we must think differently if we are to regain operational advantage," says Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Nick Hine. "The young engineers who worked on this project are thinking radically and with real imagination and reflects how the Royal Navy is thinking too."
Source: Royal Navy