VESSEL REVIEW | Unmanned demonstrator to enhance Royal Navy’s minehunting capabilities

Photo: Royal Navy
Photo: Royal Navy

The UK Royal Navy has begun conducting testing of an unmanned demonstrator vessel that is designed to enhance the service's existing capability to detect and neutralise both obsolete and new types of sea mines.

The system was developed by a team consisting of defence technology firm Thales UK, European intergovernmental organisation OCCAR, and the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) through its Defence Equipment and Support procurement arm as part of the joint UK-French Maritime Mine Counter-Measures (MMCM) program.

<em>Photo: Royal Navy</em>
Photo: Royal Navy

The MMCM system includes a 12-metre-long unmanned surface vessel (USV) that is fitted with autonomous navigation sensors such as a Simrad radar and an obstacle detection and avoidance sonar. The other key components of the system are a towed synthetic aperture sonar and a portable command and control (C2) centre that will allow the USV to be monitored and operated by human crews from the relative safety of a mothership or a shore station. Local unmanned vessel manufacturer L3Harris supplied the custom-designed USV while other partners on the project include BAE Systems, Saab, and Wood and Douglas.

Live data and images are streamed from the USV and its various sensors to the C2 centre, which can be many kilometres distant. When a mine is located, the USV can be equipped to deploy a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which is used to neutralise the threat through assured and accredited communications channels.

<em>Photo: Royal Navy</em>
Photo: Royal Navy

Unlike traditional systems on dedicated minehunting and minesweeping ships, the Thales solution is designed to be transported via container and rapidly deployed anywhere in the world. Once additional examples are available, these can also be used in multiples and in concert with allied forces to ensure more comprehensive mine countermeasures (MCM) coverage compared to traditional manned vessels.

The entire system is now undergoing rigorous capability development trials prior to being cleared for operational deployment, which navy officials expect will be before the end of 2022. A similar demonstrator prototype USV was recently delivered by Thales and OCCAR to the French Navy and is also undergoing testing before formally joining the fleet.

<em>Photo: Royal Navy</em>
Photo: Royal Navy

The Royal Navy intends to deploy the new Thales-developed system alongside its other unmanned MCM systems to ultimately replace the aging Sandown-class and Hunt-class minesweepers, which were built between the late 1970s and late 1990s and are now nearing the end of their operational service lives. Thales, meanwhile, expects that the technology can be migrated to other fields such as unmanned anti-submarine warfare, fisheries protection, coastal surveillance, and anti-smuggling operations.

12-metre Unmanned Mine Countermeasures Vessel
Type of vessel:USV – Mine countermeasures demonstrator
Owner:Royal Navy
OperatorRoyal Navy
Designer:Thales UK; L3Harris, UK
Builder:L3Harris, UK
Length overall:12 metres
Other electronics:Thales/BAE Systems portable command and control centre; BAE Systems mission management system; BAE Systems command and control system
Other equipment installed:Saab remotely operated vehicle

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World