The Royal Navy has launched and is set to test the autonomous capabilities of a crewless Pacific 24 Rigid Inflatable Boat.
Over £3m is being invested in the crewless Pacific 24 (P24), plus other autonomous small craft technology that could operate individually or in groups at speeds of up to 38 knots.
In service for over 25 years, the 7.8m long P24s have been fundamental to search-and-rescue duties, narcotics interdiction operations in the Caribbean and Middle East, and ferrying people and goods between ships or from ship to shore. According to the Royal Navy, crewless vessels might perform the same, similar, or entirely new missions.
In a statement, Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin said: “Commencing the trials of the crewless Pacific 24 boat is an important stepping stone in the Royal Navy’s development of its autonomous capability to ensure our fleet remains at the forefront of military innovation and technology, ready to meet the evolving threats of modern warfare.”
The crewless Pacific 24 is sponsored by NavyX, which is the specialist wing of the Royal Navy dedicated to rapidly developing, testing and trialling new technologies for front line use.
BAE Systems and the Royal Navy have pressed ahead with a working model since the demonstration of a prototype at DSEI in September 2019.
The P24’s hull and propulsion system remain the same, but the control system and sensors have been changed or modified to allow for autonomous movement. In use, a sailor should be able to give the unmanned craft generic tasking, and the boat will decide for itself how it executes that task.
“The autonomous Pacific 24 is not just a step change for the Royal Navy in unmanned operations, it also ensures the Navy remains at the forefront of technological improvement and innovation,” said Lieutenant Commander Rob Manson of the NavyX team.
“While initial tasks are likely to be familiar to those who already operate a Pacific 24, the autonomous nature of this craft adds huge capability and flexibility.
“Additionally, this capability can be constantly improved, allowing continuous updates and capability upgrades, resulting in regular additions to the toolbox of operational planners.”
Trials with the new craft begin this month, followed by integrating it into a front-line warship’s combat and navigation systems later in the year. The trials will determine whether the UK invests in a fleet of such craft or a few for specific missions.