Navy-led task force trials drones in Gulf

Topic: Equipment and TechTechnology Storyline: Technology

Solar and wind-powered drones have been tested in the Gulf by a Royal Navy-led task force to bolster security.

Sail drones – which look like sailboards, but are packed with cutting-edge sensors to monitor activity – were trialled in the approaches to Bahrain by the team running Operation Sentinel.

The multi-national task force – commanded by the Royal Navy’s Commodore Don Mackinnon – is responsible for the security of merchant shipping passing through some of the region’s narrowest and dangerous waters, such as the Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the Gulf, and the Bab-al-Mandeb at the foot of the Red Sea.

The task force uses a combination of small patrol vessels to keep an eye on goings on and larger warships, such as frigate HMS Montrose to provide reassurance and protection to the hundreds of oil and gas tankers, bulk carriers and cargo vessels operating in the region.

Sail drones are already in use with the US Navy, who loaned them to the Bahrain-based task force to test how they might use them on a security patrol, working hand-in-hand with surface ships.

The drones rely on wind and solar polar to patrol continuously in pre-programmed patrol areas. They were able to alert the Sentinel headquarters ashore about an unidentified vessel approaching Bahrain.

The staff then alerted a nearby Bahraini patrol vessel, the Al Muharraq, to intercept and investigate while the headquarters continued to observe the entire situation remotely.

Once it had confirmed the vessel as a friendly merchant ship, and with no further action required, the Al Muharraq returned to its original patrol and the drones resumed their own silent vigil, without the need to refuel or replenish.

The trial proved that collectively, the drones and patrol vessel were able to patrol and monitor a far greater area of sea than an individual warship working on its own.

“This exercise was a perfect demonstration of our progress towards delivering a genuinely ‘digital ocean’,” said Commodore Mackinnon, “one where navies increasingly employ a combination of manned and unmanned systems, on, above, and below the surface, which deliver unparalleled situational awareness and operational choice to the commander.”

Combined Task Force Sentinel which he leads is the operational military arm of the International Maritime Security Construct, a coalition of eight like-minded nations committed to ensuring Freedom of Navigation and deterring state-sponsored malign activity at the region’s choke points.

Its ships, aircraft and personnel are currently taking part in International Maritime Exercise 2022, a huge multi-national test of 60 nations, 50 ships and many new and innovative technologies. It’s the largest naval exercise in the Middle East, and the largest exercise for autonomous and unmanned systems anywhere to date in the world.

This exercise was a perfect demonstration of our progress towards delivering a genuinely ‘digital ocean’

Commodore Don Mackinnon