An unmanned aerial vehicle has been successfully controlled from a UK warship for the first time, according to defence systems specialist Thales.
The trials were conducted by Team JUEP (Joint UAV Experimentation Programme) at the Benbecula experimental range off north-west Scotland, culminating in a Boeing ScanEagle UAV flight lasting eight hours and 14 minutes.
According to Thales, the successful flight at sea is a huge step forward in developing an effective UAV presence for the Royal Navy.
The ScanEagle was launched from a pneumatic wedge catapult on the headland at South Uist, before control was handed over to the control station on board HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 frigate.
A Sea King helicopter was able to vector the UAV to investigate radar contacts. Thales said this operational capability would give a warship commander an enhanced view of the area surrounding the ship and enable early warning and evasive action against fast attack craft.
The ScanEagle was retrieved using a system called ‘Skyhook’. Developed by Insitugroup for use by the US Navy, Skyhook uses a rope hanging from a 50ft high pole, which the UAV catches on its wing upon returning to the warship.
The harsher weather conditions experienced at sea can make maintaining control over a UAV more difficult than when over land, while the pitch and roll of the ship poses its own additional problems.
A Thales UK spokesman said: ‘When controlling a UAV from land, the control system can operate from a fixed location. But at sea, the control system is constantly moving on all axes.’
The other major problem for engineers is how to integrate the UAV’s associated systems on board a vessel, where spare capacity is always at a premium.
Space is needed not only for the UAV’s communication and control systems, but also for the launch and recovery systems. The UAV’s systems also have to be integrated into those of the ship without interfering with the vessel’s communications networks.
Team JUEP, made up of Boeing, Qinetiq and Thales, is investigating sea-based UAV operations to see what contribution the aircraft can make to a future maritime Network Enabled Capability (NEC).