In the waters near Portsmouth Naval Base, a small black boat recently roared about with no one at the controls. It hadn't run amok after the pilot fell overboard, but was instead a demonstration of a new robotic system developed by ASV and BAE Systems. The technology package can be retrofitted to the Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIB) used by the Royal Navy (RN) to turn them into high-speed, autonomous, unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance platforms.

Even in an age of aircraft carriers and satellites, small boats are still vital Naval assets. The manned Pacific 24 RIB used by the RN aboard its Type 23 Frigates and Type 45 Destroyers will also be used by the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers now under construction. They act as the eyes and ears of their parent ship by going where she cannot. Unfortunately, it's often dangerous work and the Royal Navy and other services are rather keen to find ways to send in the boats while the sailors stay home.

This is where the new autonomous demonstrator comes in. It's designed to not only to take the sailor out of the equation, but also to be retrofitted to the Pacific 24s already in service.

The unmanned system and its software were developed by Portchester, UK-based ASV Unmanned Marine Systems with BAE Systems helping to integrate the technology in the demonstrator. BAE Systems says the robotic boat can reach speeds of over 38 knots (44 mph, 70 km/h), and operate for up to 12 hours and up to 40 km (25 mi) from its ship. It can be controlled by either a conventional human pilot or a hand-held remote controller, or run completely autonomously.

For navigation and reconnaissance, the system uses a sensor suite that includes navigation radar, a 360-degree panoramic infrared camera array, and a laser range finder. These are backed up by complex algorithms developed by ASV.

"The algorithms we’re developing with BAE Systems allow the boat to perform complex missions and navigate through waters avoiding collisions," says Dan Hook, Managing Director for ASV. "This gives it the flexibility and sophistication to operate in a number of different tactical roles, whether it’s patrolling areas of interest, providing surveillance and reconnaissance ahead of manned missions, or protecting larger ships in the fleet."

According to BAE Systems, the demonstration opens the way to the next phase of development, which will see the creation of the sensor suite and it's integration into the parent ship combat management system.

"This technology delivers an extremely robust and fast-moving unmanned boat that is able to perform a number of surveillance and reconnaissance roles, even when operating at high speed or in choppy water," says Les Gregory, Product and Training Services Director at BAE Systems. "BAE Systems has a wealth of experience in the development and integration of unmanned systems. The successful demonstration highlights the enhanced capability this technology offers. While other programmes are primarily designed for larger, slower boats to tackle mine counter-measure scenarios, this system provides an extremely manoeuvrable multi-role vessel."

The video below introduces the new autonomous system.

Source: BAE Systems

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