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Royal Navy Carrier Lands Autonomous Cargo Plane for the First Time

Royal Navy heavy cargo drone
Image courtesy Royal Navy

Published Sep 7, 2023 9:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Royal Navy has landed a fixed-wing autonomous cargo plane on the deck of the carrier HMS Prince of Wales, marking a first for the service and a novel step forward for naval aviation. 

Cargo flights are a routine part of an aircraft carrier's operations, and they are needed all the time for delivery of spare parts, personnel and supplies. But making cargo flights with a manned, full-size aircraft is costly, and the price per pound is steep when the cargo is small - for example, one critical component for an aircraft on board. That is where a small, unmanned, autonomous cargo plane could prove its worth, and the Royal Navy's new HCMC prototype delivered in a new test.

For the first-of-its-kind trial, the autonomous plane took off from an airfield on the Lizard Peninsula and flew out to meet Prince of Wales off the coast of Cornwall. After a 20-minute flight, the small cargo aircraft made a safe landing and the ship's crew unloaded a commemorative, symbolic cargo. For the backhaul flight, the crew packaged and loaded a bottled oil sample aboard the HCMC and sent it back off into the air. 

The HCMC is a twin-engined, prop-driven aluminum aircraft designed for short takeoff and landing. It needs less than 500 feet of runway, and HMS Prince of Wales has about 900 feet to offer. With a payload capacity of 220 pounds and a range of more than 500 nautical miles, HCMC has the capability to deliver meaningful amounts of stores, mail, and other goods to a carrier far off the coastline. 

"Operating autonomous drones like this will become the norm across future Royal Navy Carrier Strike Groups in our 50-year lifespan," said Capt. Richard Hewitt, the carrier's commanding officer. "We are all proud here in HMS Prince of Wales to achieve this – a fantastic milestone for all involved and the first of many firsts on this deployment."

HMS Prince of Wales will soon get under way for the U.S. East Coast, where she will work with the U.S. Navy on testing the boundaries of launch and recovery operations with the F-35 fighter.