Royal Navy Buys a Commercial Crewboat for High-Tech Testing
The Royal Navy has acquired a modified commercial crewboat to use as a testbed for future technologies, including autonomous systems.
The service ordered a 42-meter Damen 4008 Fast Crew Supplier last year, and it has been fitted out to Royal Navy spec and delivered within 12 months. The new "Experimental Vessel" XV Patrick Blackett will conduct at-sea trials for the Royal Navy's experimentation and R&D arm, NavyX. Giving the department its own ship will allow it to speed up its program without placing a burden on combatant vessels.
The Royal Navy decided to name the ship in honor of Patrick Blackett, a Nobel-winning physicist who served as the Admiralty’s first director of Operational Research during World War II.
The vessel is designed to support containerized experimental loadouts on its back deck - a system the Royal Navy calls PODS (Persistently Operationally Deployed Systems). The idea is comparable to the former mission module concept for the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship program, which was designed around swappable equipment packages for different taskings.
In the future, XV Patrick Blackett will also take part in Royal Navy and NATO exercises, with the possibility of it being upgraded with autonomous technology.
Fast crewboats are also in use with the U.S. Navy, which operates two as affordable autonomous technology test platforms. They have a capacious back deck and warship-like speeds, but without warship-like costs. The Pentagon's Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) procured two used Gulf of Mexico crewboats in about 2020 and converted them into autonomous test ships; the secretive program was successful enough to transition its first two hulls to the control of the fleet, and the two boats now work under the operational command of Surface Development Squadron One in San Diego.