The Royal Navy and Unmanned Systems

ScanEagle in flight

The Royal Navy finally seem to be getting their act together when it comes to the implementation of Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) onboard RN vessels.

A few months ago we had the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) contract which Boeing won for a contractor owned – contractor operated (COCO) UAS.

The Scan Eagle Unmanned Air Vehicle will be operated from both RN and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessels. The purpose is to provide additional ISTAR capability. There have been a number of trials utilising the Scan Eagle in previous years so the smart money was always on Boeing to win that one.

ScanEagle in flight
ScanEagle in flight

Now the RN has announced a Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) contract. The purpose of this contract is

to understand whether a multi-role Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) can provide utility in the Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Hydrography & Meteorology (HM), Offensive Surface Warfare (OSuW) and general Situational Awareness (SA) capability areas.

AgustaWestland have been selected as the prime contractor for this programme, perhaps unsurprisingly given their position at the centre of the UK Rotary Wing Strategy.

PZL SW-4 Unmanned concept for the Royal Navy
PZL SW-4 Unmanned concept for the Royal Navy

Further details on the programme were announced in the contract notification –

A CCD seeks to investigate issues with the use of relatively mature technologies and does not involve significant equipment development or integration. DE&S and Dstl previously conducted a Scoping Study which identified the potential of a small (100 – 1000kg) or medium (1000 – 3000kg) Rotary Wing UAS to deliver the maritime capabilities being sought. The CCD will need to assess platform integration issues and the impact across the Defence Lines of Development (DLoDs) of bringing an RWUAS into service. DE&S intend to progress to the demonstration & analysis phase of the CCD which is expected to involve a package of physical demonstrations of a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAS and specialist sensors, supported by simulation and synthetic environment experiments. Interested parties were advised to note the CCD is not intended as a test of a particular system and does not form part of a current acquisition programme. Rather it will inform future maritime UAS requirements, potentially leading to an acquisition programme in the second decade. DE&S expects the UAS (Vehicle, Control Station & Comms Link) that is offered to be suitably mature (TRL 7 or above) to undertake the demonstration activities with a low probability of delay due to unplanned maintenance or technical issues. Specialist sensors and payload systems at TRL 5 would be acceptable as DE&S recognises that the capabilities being investigated are novel and the technologies may not be mature yet. The CCD is also interested in identifying and assessing future sensor technologies of lower TRLs that are not ready for demonstration but may be suitable for simulation or other activities.

It will be interesting to see what platforms are selected; the Schiebel Camcopter and Saab Skeldar are both relatively mature platforms as is the Boeing Little Bird.

Alternatively the AgustaWestland ‘Project Zero’ is an interesting unmanned tilt rotor capability which might be given a crack although this would increase the risk associated with the programme.

It’s also interesting that the MoD want to consider helicopter borne MCM capabilities given that this is not a capability it currently possess in the manned rotary wing fleet. Time will tell but given the current focus of operations appears to be Counter Narcotics and Piracy it is clear that this capability is long overdue

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