The whole team has overcome significant hurdles to demonstrate the enormous utility of these aircraft for affordable and persistent surveillance and reconnaissance from ships

Commodore James Morley RN

The craft launched from Protector are smaller and less hi-tech, but still provided the icebreaker with real-time high-quality information courtesy of a detailed picture of the surrounding environment from a perspective that is only available from the air.

The quadcopter has been used for short-range reconnaissance missions, while the 3D-printed mini aircraft has been sent off on longer patrols.

The brainchild of experts at Southampton University, the Laser-Sintered Aircraft – shortened to SULSA – is made of nylon, printed in four major parts and assembled without the use of any tools – it is the world’s first ‘printed’ airplane.

It is controlled from a laptop on board, cruises at nearly 60mph and is all but noiseless thanks to its tiny engine. Each one costs no more than £7,000 – cheaper than an hour’s flying time by a Fleet Air Arm helicopter.

Having been tested off the Dorset coast last summer with HMS Mersey, the 3kg aircraft has been given a much more rigorous work-out over Antarctica.

After flights of up to 30 minutes’ duration it’s fished out of the icy waters by one of HMS Protector’s boats so it can be launched once more.

“This trial of these low-cost but highly versatile aircraft has been an important first step in establishing the utility of unmanned aerial vehicles in this region,” said Captain Rory Bryan, Protector’s Commanding Officer. 

“It’s demonstrated to me that this is a capability that I can use to great effect.”

The results of Protector’s trial have been fed back to Royal Navy headquarters in Portsmouth, 700X Squadron in Culdrose – the Navy’s dedicated unmanned aircraft unit – and the Maritime Warfare Centre at HMS Collingwood.

“I am delighted with the successful deployment of small unmanned aerial vehicles from HMS Protector in the Antarctic,” said Commodore James Morley, the Navy’s Assistant Chief of Staff Maritime Capability.

“The whole team has overcome significant hurdles to demonstrate the enormous utility of these aircraft for affordable and persistent surveillance and reconnaissance from ships – even in the environmentally challenging environment of the Antarctic.

“Although this was a relatively short duration trial to measure the relative merits of fixed and rotary wing embarked systems, we are continuing to review our options for acquisition of maritime unmanned aerial vehicles in the future.”

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