Royal Navy Drone Racing team look ahead to bright future

With his hands at the controls and his eyes focused, Air Engineering Technician (AET) James Payne uses all his concentration to keep his craft on course and at the correct speed.

The 19-year-old makes skilful manoeuvres, and after a short burst of speed, manages to make a safe landing.

Trained to fix Wildcat helicopters, AET Payne has been putting his mechanical abilities to other uses - by building and flying drones.

His passion, along with a handful of others serving in the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm, has seen the start-up of the Royal Navy Drone Racing team.

Only launched last year, the team is still in its infancy but has seen its numbers grow. From fixed-wing aircraft to home-made drones of all sizes, the team caters for all ages and abilities; AET Payne knew very little on the subject when he helped establish the team.

And as their hobby for drone sport grows, so does the members' passion for designing, building and flying the machines.

The Royal Navy has an operational drone unit - 700X Naval Air Squadron based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, in Cornwall. It's responsible for trialling unmanned aerial vehicles.

And for the RN Drone Racing team, the chance to turn a passion into a potential future career is an attractive prospect.

AET Payne, currently based at RAF Marham working as an engineer on the F-35B Lightning jet, said: "Last year I visited 700X Squadron and was shown around what they do and what they hope to do in the future.

"Having the drone racing team is great because it means you have people with a passion for drones in the Royal Navy who might consider joining 700X and using those racing skills operationally.

"With the world evolving and more things relying on technology, using drones has a big part to play in the future of aviation and distribution. With the racing teams, the military knows it's getting people, including some young engineers, with skills that can be utilised in the future."

Unmanned equipment is the future and it is great to see young guys coming through who have an interest

Leading Hand Neil MacMillan

Lieutenant Commander Justin Matthews, the commanding officer of 700X Squadron, agreed.

He said: "While drone racing may outwardly be a sport, it can develop and show skills which can be taken into an operational environment.

"The innovative approach is really in keeping with 700X Naval Air Squadron and how we are trying to drive this area forward within the Royal Navy."

AET Payne, from Colchester, joined the Royal Navy as a 16-year-old and, after completing his basic training, started training to be an engineer at HMS Sultan in Gosport. He then moved to RNAS Yeovilton, in Somerset, where he maintained Wildcat helicopters - the navy's newest maritime helicopter.

It was there he developed a passion for drones and drone racing.

"My girlfriend bought me a toy drone, I broke it and was interested in fixing it," he added.

"I thought to myself, if I can fix a helicopter, I can fix a little drone. That was when I started getting into drone racing. I realised that because of my engineer background, there are transferable skills between the two. I use the techniques I have learnt in my job to be a better drone racer - it works vice versa too."

His time building and flying drones has seen AET Payne grow in confidence, both socially and in his own abilities.

He said: "When you get a racing drone, if you don't know how to fix it you won't be flying very long. The aim is to fly them as fast as they can go - that means they break often. We don't have a team of engineers to fix them for us. We have to be able to fix them ourselves.

"To take part in a competition with a drone I built, it is a feeling like no other. Having something you built fly is pretty crazy and mind-blowing. Drone racing is fun regardless but when you have put in the hours to build something, it means a lot more."

The RN Drone Racing team recently had a stand at Royal Navy International Air Day, held at RNAS Yeovilton. They said it was a good promotion for them, with many senior leaders keen to learn more about what they do.

Now, they are looking to boost their numbers and get out to more events and more armed forces races.

AET Nick Prince, a Wildcat engineer on 825 Naval Air Squadron at Yeovilton, said: “It was really good at the air day having people, both in the navy and the public, coming up to us and asking questions. We were helping people get more knowledge not just about the team but about drones in general.

“We are hoping through STEM programmes we can go into schools and give them a better understanding on how drones work, how to fly them and also our backgrounds and what we do in the navy.”

AET Prince also flies fixed-wing aircraft and likes challenging himself in being successful at both.

“I have been flying planes for about 10 years and drones for about five,” he added.

“Being part of the navy drone racing team means my passion for both has grown and it has shown me what I can achieve. It’s also shown how my job as a Wildcat engineer can boost a hobby I love.”

For avionics instructor Leading Hand (LH) Neil MacMillan, he got into the team after using drones as part of his teaching in the classroom, at the Engineering Training School at RNAS Yeovilton. AET Payne asked his advice on building a drone from scratch and they started working together.

LH MacMillan expects to see the team grow as more people learn about them.

“Once we get the message out, I think we’ll see greater interest and an increase in members,” he said.

“People don’t necessarily realise their skills are transferable and it is something anyone can do.

“Unmanned equipment is the future and it is great to see young guys coming through who have an interest.”