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Drone exercise will transform future naval warfare, says Navy

But not quite in a Rise of the Machines way ... for now

The Royal Navy’s ongoing drone exercise Unmanned Warrior has been a “transformational opportunity”, Rear Admiral Paul Bennett said this morning.

Admiral Bennett, assistant chief of the naval staff for capability, speaking via video link from Scotland, told a press briefing at the Centre for Maritime Intelligence Systems at Portsdown that Unmanned Warrior had allowed the Navy to accelerate its understanding of autonomous systems - or robot drones, as the public knows them.

“I fundamentally believe this is a transformational opportunity for navies to take a jump into the future by really understanding this technology,” said the admiral, who added: “The future is obvious; it’s about what scale we embrace it at.”

The exercise, which is halfway through its scheduled two weeks, has seen 40 drones being deployed around the Kyle of Lochalsh area of Scotland in the MoD’s Hebrides test ranges. Flying drones, seaborne drones and underwater drones are all included.

Unmanned Warrior, however, is not a “competition or acquisition” exercise, in the words of Fleet Robotics Officer Commander Peter Pipkin, who embraced his post as having “undeniably one of the best job titles ever.” Instead, Unmanned Warrior is a test exercise designed partly to demonstrate what industry is currently capable of, partly to get the MoD’s traditional big contractors talking to smaller firms who have developed civilian drone tech already, and partly to get the Navy thinking seriously about what it wants to buy in the years to come.

The broad idea, as explained by Cdr Pipkin and the Admiral, is to help the Navy define what capabilities it wants to have at its fingertips by the year 2035. The MoD has recognised that defence “no longer leads these science and technology areas.”

“Industry now understand our requirements better and we understand the possibilities that industry might offer us,” said Admiral Bennett. “Hopefully this will lead to slimmed-down procurement processes,” he added to an impassive press audience.

“We cannot just replace equipment with slightly better equipment,” said Cdr Pipkin. “Turning equipment into capability requires another step.”

The exercise is split into different themes. Each theme “has an MoD and an industry lead” which, Cdr Pipkin said, “has enabled conversations that I don’t think could or would have happened anywhere other than the environment we’ve created here.”

Unique features of the exercise include the explicit use by drone manufacturers of open architectures and common standards - thereby ensuring that everyone’s drones were not only able to talk to the central data-crunching system (provided by Esri) but also to each other.

As El Reg was told, some swarms - sorry, squads - of undersea survey drones were able to communicate underwater, sweeping certain areas and dynamically moving on to fresh areas that other drones hadn’t yet covered.

Also attending Unmanned Warrior was the US Navy and observers from Australia, amongst other nations. ®

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