Royal Navy’s drones trials team take to sea

Their job is to test and operate drones for possible use by the Royal Navy.

And 700X Naval Air Squadron have been working hard over the past few months to trial unmanned equipment and its suitability for future operations.

Based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, 700X has taken to the sea in the latest step of its pioneering adventure into remotely-piloted air systems.

They headed out for a week of trials on board the fishery protection ship HMS Mersey.

700X commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Justin Matthews said it was a hugely exciting time to be at the cutting-edge of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology.

“These remotely-piloted systems can act as an extension to a ship’s suite of sensors and potentially as a weapon delivery platform,” he said.

“We’ve set up this new flight to test that concept as a capability. We want to be able to demonstrate how you could take any generic UAV, fly it from a ship, and get its information back in a meaningful way.

“Although we continue to work with industry, this is about the Royal Navy flying a Royal Navy UAV from a Royal Navy ship. That is a fabulously exciting concept.”

The team are using an existing air system known as Puma, which can be launched and recovered from ships.

Lieutenant Commander Matthews added: “The Puma is just one air system. It can stay up for two-and-a-half hours and it has a really good camera.

“Will we use it the future? Well, it’s a starting point.

“For the Royal Marines for example, this is an awesome piece of kit. In other areas, we need to assess its utility across the differing requirements of vessels.

“It’s important to remember that new technologies are coming through all the time. The most important aspect of our work is not about the air vehicle itself however. While we’ve done some work already on civilian boats, this trial is about how a Royal Navy ship can use these remotely-piloted-vehicles.

“We’ll be exploring how you get the information back in a way which can make a difference.

“It needs to go to the operations room or the bridge. What is the best way of launching and retrieving these vehicles which is not going to impact the ship? These are the kinds of issues we have to tackle.

“I am especially pleased that we will back on Mersey, because 700X previously went on board the same ship during an operation and used quadcopters. This is a natural progression to move into this more sophisticated air system.”

I think we are in a very exciting time and I am really pleased with the progress we’ve made so far. As we move forward and take this technology to sea, we are leading the way in developing a new capability for the Royal Navy. We are at the start of that adventure.

Lieutenant Commander Matthews

700X plays the lead role in all aspects of remotely-piloted systems, such as testing and evaluating drones from industry at Predannack airfield on the Lizard peninsula, close to RNAS Culdrose.

To help the squadron get to grips with remotely-piloted aviation, they spent time in the USA.

In Huntsville, Alabama, they received training on the Puma and Wasp air systems and learned how to operate the aircraft in various scenarios.

With a mixture of classroom and practical training, the team learnt how to launch and recover the vehicles in a variety of modes from purely manual to autonomous.

Back in the UK, they put these skills into practise, launching the Puma at Predannack – a landmark moment for the team.

The squadron also recently hosted a visit by an admiral from the Brazilian Navy, who was keen to see for himself the progress made by the Royal Navy.

In a recent joint exercise with NavyX, the Royal Navy’s experts in getting unmanned technology rapidly to the frontline, the squadron supplied the air power with live video of ‘enemy soldiers’ passed back to HQ ahead of the Royal Marines storming a beach in north Devon. 

The marines working with 700X will also be taking systems on exercise to Norway soon.

The other major aspect of the squadron’s work is in delivering training courses across defence from RNAS Culdrose in the use of quadcopters. The squadron’s team of instructors train not just naval personnel but also the Army and RAF in the use of these useful drones on the battlefield.

An important milestone comes this month when 700X will have taught its 700th student.

Lieutenant Commander Matthews added: “I think we are in a very exciting time and I am really pleased with the progress we’ve made so far. As we move forward and take this technology to sea, we are leading the way in developing a new capability for the Royal Navy. We are at the start of that adventure.”