Two-Man Crew Tests Autonomous Boat for Surveillance on the Solent

Image courtesy Royal Navy

Published Jun 1, 2021 2:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a recent test, a small team of Royal Navy sailors navigated a fast, unmanned stealth boat to monitor shipping in the Solent, controlling it remotely from land.

Using a laptop and a tablet at a waterfront command post at Browndown Beach, about three nm to the southwest of Portsmouth, the two-man team used a Madfox (MAritime Demonstrator For Operational eXperimentation) boat to watch shipping movements on the waterway. It is the first time that the autonomous vessel has been used for this application from a shoreside control station. 

Part of the operation involved training up the "crew" in the use of an unmanned boat. In the exercise, the two sailors learned how to interpret the live feed from the vessel’s sensors and cameras – including a high-resolution zoom that can identify people on ships at a distance. (As a safety measure, Royal Navy personnel were aboard the boat, but its maneuvers, speed and heading were controlled by personnel ashore.)

The simple set-up for the autonomous boat's control will be integrated into the Royal Navy's surface combatants, including the next-generation Type 26 and Type 31 frigates. The ultimate objective would be for the boat to deploy with Royal Navy ships in future operations, carrying out tasks like force protection to surveillance.

"It might seem like remote-controlled boats on a park lake, however, this is a significant milestone as navy personnel gain confidence in operating at speed and dislocated from the vessel," said Commander Antony Crabb, the officer in charge of Royal Navy tech team NavyX. "It’s not what we are used to after years standing watch on board ships of the current Fleet. Lessons from these recent serials will be used to build [up to] Operational Experimentation activity where the project will add tactical value."