The Royal Navy and Unmanned Systems

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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August 10, 2013 3:19 pm

Hmmm. I did a white-paper for MOD on helo-MCM as part of Merlin upgrade scoping study. I wonder if it has any influence on their thinking…

Rocket Banana
August 10, 2013 4:08 pm

Is this the “towed sled” idea?

I must say that IMO I find that a fankly ridiculous use of resources.

I know they don’t yet exist, but surely a UUV is more sensible? Maybe a copter to “ping” some contacts, which would be the Merlin we already have. Essentially a semi-active, sonar-homing torpedo.

August 10, 2013 4:29 pm
All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
August 10, 2013 4:41 pm

The US tow sleds behind Sea Dragon helos.

August 10, 2013 5:55 pm

El Sid
El Sid
August 12, 2013 2:02 pm

There’s a Merlin derivative already doing mine-clearance, Japan’s MCH-101 – it’s got the same AN/AQS-24 sonar as the Sea Dragon and is getting the AN/AES-1 ALMDS lidar system from the MH-60S. Worth noting that the whole idea of downsizing the Sea Dragon into the MH-60S has failed because the MH-60S isn’t powerful enough to tow a sled, hence why the USN is getting so interested in forward staging bases like the USS Ponce as a lair for Sea Dragons.

I’m sure Chris will be able to correct me, but the basic problem with doing mine clearance with helicopters is that it thrashes the machinery and burns through a LOT of fuel, so it’s a lot more expensive than doing it in some tupperware. As such you can see why it works for the US but I’m not sure it really fits a financially-challenged RN. Probably the only time the equation might work is if you are up against CAPTOR-type targets, and I guess you can imagine them proliferating in coming years. Still, it’s a lot more relevant to the actual threats faced by the RN than stuff like worrying about Harpoon. (qv T45 thread passim)

@TD – obvious one you’re missing is the Firescout variants, looks like the USN is settling on the Bell 407-based MQ-8C as their main VTUAV (first one was delivered the other day). Under 3 tonnes, 11h endurance with 600lb payload (including Hellfire and APKWS), RR engines. Looking further ahead, the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) will be amazing if DARPA pull it off – 600lb payload out to 600-900nm from a trimaran LCS.

Think Defence
August 12, 2013 2:16 pm
Reply to  El Sid

El Sid, this one isn’t one of mine!

But yes, I agree that towing sweeping gear isnt a good use of scarce rotary assets, besides which, we are more likely to use unmanned surface vehicles likes the SWIMS UOR we used in 2003

There is also the QinetiQ unmanned Gazelle and Westlands unmanned SW4 to consider

August 12, 2013 2:25 pm

True. You need a large steel ship about 1500t with a nice deep hull and some big cheap diesels. Sling an ISO on the back, plug it in, and Bob’s your aunty.

August 12, 2013 2:50 pm

El Sid – its a few years ago now, but if I remember right I favoured MCM systems that were ‘non-connected’ to the helo, things like lidar pods & deployed AUVs rather than a heavy towed sled, although I might have considered a slippery lightweight towed sonar. So long ago… I don’t think there would have been a fuel economy/endurance penalty over the aircraft’s primary ASW role; although keeping 14t of ironmongery hovering above the briny probably does use a bit more kerosene than bobbing about in a plastic boat.

I can’t help thinking that MCM ahead of the Main Body would be an ideal task for remote control or autonomous surface vessels – AUVs when I last looked were slow because they needed good sonar performance and so would probably not keep the necessary speed of advance, but the unmanned surface units ought to work every bit as well as the US towed sled. We should do those.

Pt. James Frazer
Pt. James Frazer
August 12, 2013 4:25 pm

Like others can’t see that MCM will be satisfied by this study,…

Other than that, seems like the Camcopter S-100 is well matched to most of the requirement particularly now they’ve developed a heavy fuel engine option. Modular payload capability already exists:

1) Wescam MX-10 (Wildcat uses MX-15 I think) for surveillance and target identification / designation;
2) Thales I-Master SAR/GMTI for RM littoral support (Watchkeeper commonality);
3) LMMs on side hardpoints for anti-FIAC (Wildcat commonality again) – only mocked up I think;
4) They’ve integrated a Riegl hydrographic bathymetric laser scanner.

There’s a possible trade-off on endurance but it’s off the shelf with a small footprint (either standalone on future replacement MCM/OPV etc) or additional asset to a T45/T23/T26’s helo(s).

El Sid
El Sid
August 13, 2013 8:38 pm

@TD – apologies. OTOH it’s your gaff, so it’s always your fault! :-)

The range of your sensors affects the fuel burn. Imagine you have to clear a grid square of a threat. System A can detect it in a swathe 1km wide, System B detects it with a swathe 100m wide (both at an unrealistic 100% detection rate). System A can sweep the square in a single pass of 1km, whereas System B has to make 10 passes of 1km (plus 100m “sideways” after each pass to line up for the next) for a total of 11km. Mine clearance tends to use much shorter-range detection systems, so is more like B than A.

If you’re going for remote systems and the flying thing is more of a comms relay – why use kerosene to keep it in the air when you could use helium? :-)

USV’s are a nice idea but progress seems to be slow on them, and I don’t think it’s just to do with a lack of budget because the Taliban don’t go swimming. The US programme whose name I forget seems to have had quite a lot of troubles, there’s been a lot of trials but not a lot reaching service other than that one on the Endurances.

Ditto remote mine detection – this stuff is genuinely hard.

Going back to VTUAVs, lots of news this week as there’s a show on – I see @TD has picked up on some of the big US companies’ adverts :

First FAA type certificates allowing commercial flights of unmanned aircraft in civil airspace, for the Puma AE and ScanEagle X200 in support of the oil industry in Alaska :

K-Max is spiralling upwards – latest additions are a satcom that can send HD video through the rotors from an MX-10, and they’re going to test if it can identify cargo at a FOB and bring it back.

Sikorsky’s efforts on autonomous helicopters enter the Matrix :

US Army’s JUH-60A RASCAL helicopter uses lidar to identify a safe landing zone, avoiding power lines etc :

El Sid
El Sid
August 13, 2013 9:33 pm

I know it’s not real but these two videos give some idea of clearing mines with helicopters and ROVs respectively :

Going completely off-topic – Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations looks like it’s going to be a fun game – some round here might want to play it just to figure out why you don’t want to rely on T45 as your only layer of air defence, or why 8 Harpoon is pointless against any kind of modern warship.

[no affiliations etc]

August 13, 2013 10:14 pm

ElSid – daft idea alert – if mines are contact triggered (thinking big spiky balls full of TNT) then they would be ‘disabled’ by an impact? Get the biggest torpedo in service, replace the warhead with long range fuel tanks and program the thing to drive at and bump into everything it can find. Inert things like ships & subs would get a bit of a shock but no more, where dangerous things would blow. Code the torpedo route to weave around on the MLA ahead of the Main Body. The torpedoes have adequate sonar for the task already, I presume. Could even recover them once fuel runs out so they can be reused. Big advantage over AUVs is their speed – all the AUVs I looked into were very ponderous and pedestrian movers (if you can use the term underwater).

End of daft idea.

El Sid
El Sid
August 13, 2013 10:38 pm

if mines are contact triggered

Sadly they’re a lot more sophisticated these days – imagine something with a microphone and some processing software that’s smart enough to eg not explode until a third Type 23 comes past. Physical sweeps still have some utility in cutting wires etc so that they float to the surface, but they’re a lot less effective than they used to be, hence the increased interest in detecting mines and negating them individually.

Trouble with torpedoes is that your range underwater is relatively small – the only one with a meaningful range is the Russian Type 65, which can do around 60 miles @30kts – but weighs nearly 5 tonnes. Warhead is only about 10% of that weight, so I suspect removing it wouldn’t help much.

El Sid
El Sid
August 16, 2013 12:54 pm

Brief piece on the LCS MCM module :

Reckon that between a RMMV semisubmersible towing an AN/AQS-20A sonar and a MH-60S carrying ALMDS and AMNS they can clear mines in half the time of “legacy” (which presumably means an Avenger) without putting 80 bodies inside the minefield.

August 20, 2013 9:41 am

As I am relatively new to Think Defence Forums, please forgive my eagerness. I would have thought the a cash strapped RN my have been better served by contributing to the joint UUV trials that are taking place in Toulon presently.

Marine based UAV systems have two fundamental problems to overcome. First is the physical Command and control systems required take up valuable space on a vessel that (like the Type 45’s) is already compact and would need major cost/refit to accommodate. Second, as others have noted, towing arrays and sleds from rotary craft is beset with logistical and technical difficulties.

The other issue arises from determining the scope of requirement and not making UAV’s try to do everything currently done by a variety of asets. Put simply, underwater surveillance/mcm capabilities are best served by UUV systems that could co-ordinate between themselves, surface and sub-surface fleets.

UAV systems provide potentially long range over the horizon capability that could utilise passive technologies and thus minimise ISTAR profiles. IMO, there is a need for both and critical selection will minimise long run cost by assigning specific capabilities and missions to purpose built system. This should help to keep a lid on development budget and also lessen costs through sharing asset development and deployment.

Think Defence
August 20, 2013 9:50 am
Reply to  Enigma

Welcome to TD Enigma

August 20, 2013 10:53 am

@ Enigma

Space, the final front ear…….

I often ramble on about hangar space on modern escorts. And how if I had built T45 it would have had dual hangars a la Absalon for two Merlin or four Lynx or a Merlin and UAV or just as space to shove a TEU. Really a large contained space with access to the outside; that is after all what governs a ship’s upper deck layout how stuff inside reaches outs . My hopes that T26 would come in such a format appear to be dashed. That as I often say that the helicopter is the module system for a naval unit seems not to register with those spec’ing the ships. Another hobby horse of mine is the UAV amphib. You could have quite a substantial aircraft if the sea was used as the runway. Crane it over the side and Bob’s you aunty. ALl good fun. :)

August 20, 2013 11:58 am

Experiments are conducted at sea since 2011, in favor of the DGA and the French Navy off Brest.

Swordfish prepares the system program future mine action (SLAMF) to replace, by 2020, the current means of mine warfare. Indeed mines are present in all maritime disputes, most recently in Libya, to obstruct military, commercial and humanitarian traffic routes. They are characterized by both a very simple and use a wide range, from the most basic to highly sophisticated devices that can be wet by non specialized resources to a depth of about 300 meters.

Swordfish is designed to evaluate a system responsible for processing vast maritime and coastal areas, discreetly and without exposing the lives of operators. The system consists of the following among other demonstrators: a surface drone, called Sterenn Du (Black Star in Breton), who plays the role of drone carrier drones, and two types of unmanned underwater vehicles, loaded on board, allowing detecting and identifying mines.

Swordfish was notified in July 2009 the industrial consortium comprising companies DCNS, Thales Underwater Systems and ECA. From the Sterenn was launched in December 2010. The ability to get into the water and retrieve unmanned underwater vehicles was tested in 2011. Full automation and remote operation from the ground were also demonstrated. In the second half of 2012, the program is to test a new type of submarine drone capable of identifying threats. Finally, in 2013-2014, a second type of drone that can detect and classify mines autonomous manner, will be tested off the coast of Brittany.

El Sid
El Sid
September 9, 2013 9:33 pm

Not the sort of thing that gets talked about much, using a Scan Eagle instead of balloons for meteorology for radar propagation :