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Royal Navy Switches its First Minehunting Crew to Autonomous-Boat Role

royal navy
Two Project Wilton minehunters. RNMB Hebe, right, is larger to accommodate a command and control post (Royal Navy)

Published Jul 15, 2021 2:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a first, the Royal Navy is reassigning an experienced crew from its 1st Mine Countermeasures Squadron, removing them from the rotation for their vessel, and putting them in charge of autonomous minehunting boats. It may well be the first time that a permanent crew from a conventional warship (or possibly any ship) fully transitions to autonomous, unmanned operation; it also marks the beginning of the end for traditional mine countermeasures vessels in Royal Navy service.

The squadron's Crew 7 has completed multiple tours of duty in the Middle East, either aboard the minehunter HMS Shoreham or one of her Sandown-class sister ships. These conventional minehunting vessels each spend three years at a time operating from Bahrain; at retirement, they will be gradually replaced by autonomous boats from the UK's Project Wilton. The first three of these new boats - RNMB Hebe, Harrier and Hazard - will be operated by Crew 7.

"After seven years working with the Sandown community, times are changing with the future of mine warfare now clearly on the horizon," said Petty Officer Chris Proctor, Operations Room Supervisor for Crew 7. "Though I do not expect the transition to be free of teething problems, I am excited to get to work with the new systems and be part of the future of mine warfare."

After saying farewell to HMS Shoreham in Bahrain, the team flew home to Clyde Naval Base in Scotland for retraining on the new class of Project Wilton boats. The vessels are set up for manned, remote control or autonomous capability, and one of them - the HMS Hebe - is a bit larger to accommodate a mobile command-and-control cabin, which the team can use to manage the other two boats while at sea. (All three boats can be controlled from shore, if needed.) 

In transitioning to autonomous operations for minehunting, the Royal Navy's objective is not only to shed the cost of a full-size manned vessel, but to take the crew out of the danger zone in a notoriously hazardous business. Hebe, Harrier and Hazard can detect and classify mines and UXO while operating at speed, without putting sailors and large assets at risk. 

HMS Shoreham's Crew 7 assemble on deck for a farewell photo commemorating their manned vessel (Royal Navy)