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New funding promises to allow further research into defending a country's shores from a safe distance.
As the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth pulled into Portsmouth harbour, another snippet of news, also relating to the Royal Navy, sailed by rather unnoticed.
A £4.5-million contract has been signed to bring closer a future where unmanned ships, along with supporting machines - both below water and in the sky - can be integrated into a single defence system.
QinetiQ, a British defence technology company, has announced the contract for the fourth stage of the Maritime Autonomous Platform Exploitation (Maple) project. Several other firms, including BAE Systems, are also involved.
The potential of this project was demonstrated last year in several exercises, including the Unmanned Warrior, which saw the disarming of a dummy minefield. Another exercise saw an unmanned vessel sent to find a "threat boat" and confront it.
Maple’s power lies in allowing its user to integrate defence systems (boats, drones or submarines) from various suppliers, and to control them from a safe distance. Another benefit is allowing small teams to control numerous machines, which would otherwise require a lot of manpower.
QinetiQ says the new phase will evolve the existing design and work on the communications system. More exercises will be held, the company says.
“Through effective collaboration we are building on the ACER system’s success at Unmanned Warrior,” said Stuart Hider, a director at QinetiQ. “Maple is a key project in unlocking the huge potential of unmanned vehicles and autonomous systems in safeguarding sovereign interests.”
Now with the technology doing the ground work, humans can focus on decision making and other important tasks, the company's Bill Biggs, who heads up autonomy-related work, told Professional Engineering. "We are really excited to take this project forward," he added. "We believe what we are doing is genuinely groundbreaking."
Meanwhile, the HMS Queen Elizabeth stole all the headlines, with prime minister Theresa May praising the £3-billion carrier, describing it as a symbol of a “great global maritime nation”.
This is the first home-coming for the Royal Navy’s biggest ship, which has just completed a series of tests and will conduct further sea trials before taking on board a fleet of F-35 fighter jets. The navy’s Sir Philip Jones described the Queen Elizabeth as the embodiment of Britain, in steel and spirit.