Royal Navy gets sandbox warship to test sea drones and robot submarines

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The Royal Navy has taken delivery of a new experimental testbed ship that will let sailors experiment with cutting-edge technology such as robot submarines and remote controlled boats.

Christened the XV Patrick Blackett, the Dutch-built vessel arrived in Portsmouth Naval Base this week for delivery to NavyX, the service’s research and development division.

Tom Ryall, the Royal Marine colonel in charge of NavyX, said the new ship “will give us greater flexibility to experiment with novel military capabilities, and accelerate new technology, kit and concepts to the front line.”

The 270-tonne Patrick Blackett is a civilian design that has been specially modified so prototypes of new equipment can be rapidly installed on her spacious weather deck, where sailors can put them through their paces.

Electrical and water hook-up points on the deck will let trials personnel rapidly install and remove their specialised equipment without the ship needing expensive dockyard modifications every time a new item needs to be installed.

Trials of new naval equipment in recent years have relied on pulling a warship from frontline duties and modifying it as required, affecting the navy’s ability to patrol the world’s increasingly hostile oceans.

Naval sources expect the Patrick Blackett to be used for hosting trials of maritime drones as part of future naval exercises. Such drones can be remotely controlled from a ‘mothership’ and sail on the sea’s surface or even act as submarines.

Such technologies reduce the risks faced by sailors and, admirals hope, mean one ship can control a much larger area than a conventional warship.

Recent Naval experiments with crewless, autonomous craft have included using drones to fly supplies to ships at sea, as well as trials of a remote-controlled speedboat made by BAE Systems and deployed from frigate HMS Argyll.

The Navy’s new vessel is named after a British physicist who was the Navy’s first director of operational research during the Second World War. Patrick Blackett won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948.

Unlike commissioned warships, the Patrick Blackett will fly the Blue Ensign — denoting a government-owned civilian vessel — though she will be commanded by a naval officer and carry a naval crew of five. Her hull is also black instead of naval grey, bearing the new ship’s unique NATO pennant number: X01. 

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