An autonomous UAV minesweeper will soon join the ranks of the Royal Navy

Developed by Thales, an autonomous uncrewed surface vehicle has completed trials in British waters in preparation for official commissioning in 2024.
Christopher McFadden
Thales autonomous UAV minesweeper
Thales' autonomous UAV minesweeper

Thales Group  

Developed by Thales Group, a new autonomous motor boat completed sea trials off Weymouth Bay, U.K., in December of last year. Called the Royal Navy Motor Boat (RNMB) "Apollo," the diminutive vessel is being developed to provide the navy with a partially autonomous, remotely controlled mine sweeper. The trials, which have only been officially made public, were part of the Anglo-French Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) program, which delivers the autonomous capability for the Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale (French Navy).

"RNMB Apollo has completed tests that prove remotely controlled uncrewed vessels can be operated by a team at a shore-based control station, completing a series of tasks, while retaining awareness of its course and position utilizing a line-of-sight communications systems," according to Thales.

The boats are partially automated but can also be controlled remotely

"The program delivers world-leading maritime mine warfare capabilities, keeping the UK and France at the forefront of naval autonomous systems technology. The delivery of uncrewed mine clearance platforms will allow the Royal Navy (RN) to continue their important role of keeping shipping lanes open without putting ​ sailors or crewed platforms into the threat area," added Thales.

"Apollo" is outfitted with various sensors, such as radar, LIDAR (light detection and ranging), and electro-optical and infrared cameras. These sensors enable the vessel's location to be constantly communicated to the command and control center via a secure communication network throughout the trials.

The Thales MCube mission management software is utilized on land to combine sensor inputs into a unified tactical view for command and control. According to Thales, the experiments have proven that unmanned vessels controlled from afar can be operated by a team on land while maintaining awareness of their direction and location through line-of-sight communication systems.

“As the first of their kind, these trials are a significant milestone in the path towards certification of autonomous maritime systems for operational use,” said Alex Cresswell, CEO and chairman of Thales U.K. “They represent one of the first important steps in gaining trust in uncrewed vessels in a complex program. The trial is a critical remote operation stepping stone towards autonomous mine hunting," he added.

Thales hopes to deliver the boats by 2024

These vessels are designed to operate in national waters or be transported by air to dangerous zones worldwide to hunt for mines or secure sea lines of communication. One of the two pre-production Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USV), RNMB "Apollo," was delivered to the Royal Navy and Marine Nationale in December 2021 as part of the MMCM program. The program aims to bring autonomous mine-hunting capability to both fleets.

“We have a long tradition of supporting the Royal Navy and Marine Nationale in mine warfare, surface ship and underwater operations, and we are very proud to be working with them to bring these game-changing autonomous systems into operational service,” said Gwendoline Blandin-Roger, managing director of underwater Systems, Thales.