A drone speedboat that could pave the way for a Royal Navy robot fleet of high-speed reconnaissance and surveillance vessels has been unveiled by defence scientists.
The 34ft boat can skim across the waves at more than 50kts to track high speed targets, while navigating and dodging other ships without the control of a human.
Naval commanders believe the Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) could herald a robot fleet of high-speed craft packed with sensors to carry out spy and scouting missions.
The unarmed test craft is one of 40 prototypes to be tested by the Royal Navy in a major robot war game off the coast of northern Scotland in October.
The dawn of unmanned vehicles is likely to have the same revolutionary effect on naval warfare as the birth of flight and aircraft carriers, according to the navy’s Fleet Robotics Officer.
Cdr Peter Pipkin said: “This is a chance to take a great leap forward in maritime systems – not to take people out of the loop but to enhance everything they do, to extend our reach, our look, our timescales, our efficiency using intelligent and manageable robotics at sea.”
MAST has been built for the MoD’s defence laboratories and is based on an existing Bladerunner speedboat, but fitted with sensors and robotic technology that is still largely classified.
The boat has a sophisticated anti-collision system to avoid hazards and other craft, but current laws meant that when it was unveiled on the Thames, it had to have a human coxswain on board.
While the MAST is only a test platform for new technology and will not enter service as it stands, sources said it could it pave the way for future robots vessels that can track, shadow or spy on other craft as well as loitering off coastlines.
Elizabeth Quintana, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, said the Navy was looking at unmanned vehicles to take on “dull, dirty, and dangerous” jobs.
She said robotspeedboats could also prove useful for protecting warships such as the new aircraft carriers from swarms of attacking speedboats like those deployed by the Iranian navy in the Gulf.
But she said military chiefs were hesitant about arming unmanned vehicles.
She said: “The real issue is the public perception and the nervousness that some in the military might have and the potential legal challenges.
“The use of unmanned systems to deliver lethal force is still extremely controversial. It’s facing all sorts of legal challenges, so I think going down that road is quite difficult.” The Navy has already used unmanned vehicles for surveillance and for hunting for underwater mines.
Earlier this year it announced its three-year-old fleet of ScanEagle drones which has tracked drug gangs, pirates and people smugglers would be axed, and cost-cutting means there is no budget for replacements.
The ScanEagle aircraft, which was described by the Ministry of Defence as “crucial” and “game-changing” when it was bought in, will leave service next year.
Exercise Unmanned Warrior will next month (OCT) see defence scientists try out competing maritime drones to see what they can offer the Navy in areas such as reconnaissance and surveillance, submarine hunting and mine detection.