The UK's Royal Navy has taken delivery of its first robotic minesweeper system under a £13 million (US$17.5 million) contract with Dorset-based Atlas Elektronik UK. The demonstrator system is not only intended to hunt and clear traditional mines without placing sailors in harm's way, but can also deal with the more sophisticated modern digital mines.

Keeping the sea lanes open is the primary task of the major navies and one of the greatest hazards to shipping is the sea mine. Whether newly laid or left over from some previous conflict, mines can lurk anywhere and the dangerous job of hunting them down and disposing of them seems like a never-ending task.

The trouble is that, aside from the hazards of dealing with mines, running fleets of minesweepers is expensive. One way of dealing with both of these problems is to develop autonomous minesweepers that can shoulder most of the work while leaving the manned vessels to handle more complex tasks.

Part of the Mine Countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) program, the new autonomous minesweeper system for the Royal Navy is designed to counter digital mines, which can detect and target warships as they pass overhead. In addition, it has the ability to sense and avoid other vessels and navigation hazards, and can work with other robotic systems in coordinated exercises.

The system consists of an 11-meter-long (36 ft) unmanned surface vessel towing three coil-auxiliary boats equipped with electrodes and sensors for detecting and detonating mines. It can be deployed from ships or ports and be controlled from either a ship-based station or from land.

The system has already undergone four months of testing by the Atlas Elektronik and Defence Equipment and Support team and the Royal Navy's Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials Team (MASTT) to determine how well it could clear mines, avoid obstacles, and carry out general performance tasks. It will now go through a more detailed set of trials with the Navy.

"The Mine Countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability Combined Influence Minesweeping system is the Royal Navy's first fully autonomous capability demonstrator and paves the way for the introduction of this technology across the full range of maritime capabilities," says Brigadier Jim Morris Royal Marines, Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff in Maritime Capability, and Senior Responsible Officer for the MHC program. "Combined Influence Minesweeping is a critical component of the Mine Countermeasures capability. This autonomous system will restore the Royal Navy's sweep capability, enabling it to tackle modern digital mines that may not otherwise be discovered in challenging minehunting conditions.

"This autonomous sweep system represents a fundamental step in the Navy's transition to autonomous offboard systems to counter the threat posed to international shipping by the sea mine; we look forward to commencing demonstration of the associated minehunting system in 2019."

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