MADFOX Autonomous Vessel during REPMUS 22

Royal Navy ships led the way in “game-changing” NATO autonomous exercises off the coast of Portugal.

Frigate HMS Lancaster and minehunter HMS Hurworth tested the use of uncrewed tech – from drones to underwater survey vessels, which could be used by NATO on the front line of operations in the future.

For the month-long trials, more than 11 warships, 120 autonomous vehicles and 1,500 military and civilian personnel from 15 NATO countries took over the waters near the Troia Peninsula, Portugal.

This is the first time the Royal Navy has sent ships to the exercise, with previous participation involving crewless boats and drones. It’s enhanced presence in the exercise, hosted by the Portuguese Navy, comes as this year marks the 650th anniversary of the Treaty of Tagilde between England and Portugal – the oldest alliance in the world.

HMS Lancaster played a key role by serving as the command hub for the multitude of autonomous systems, feeding information to the other ships in the task force to allow them to make crucial decisions during the numerous scenarios.

This allowed the task group to see and utilize the range of drones, underwater vehicles and vessels.

Jim Beaton, the Royal Navy and UK lead for the exercise, said: “REPMUS 22 has been a game-changer, first through the trial of an autonomous asset ready combat system in HMS Lancaster, from where we were able to distribute an autonomous system operating picture to a NATO task group.

“This is a huge advancement, and we have taken that forward to support two NATO Standing Naval Forces. Dynamic Messenger saw us take autonomy to sea in a NATO context.

“Additionally, we have been able to bring some of the navy’s newest operators to the exercise, getting their feedback on the system and starting to push that experience back into the fleet.”

First up was REPMUS – a testing ground designed to allow large-scale experiments for NATO navies and their industry partners. During this period the ships and crewless technology were put to the test through a range of scenarios above, on and below the water.

Exercise Dynamic Messenger followed, where the tried and tested uncrewed systems were integrated into operations both at sea and ashore. This was the first exercise under NATO command to use autonomous underwater systems, testing readiness across a variety of challenges including submarine threats and sea mines.

HMS Lancaster carried out trials with Puma, an Uncrewed Air Vehicle primarily used for surveillance. The battery-powered, hand-launched UAV is designed to cope with challenging environments across the globe, and is predominantly used for intelligence gathering.

Lieutenant Chris Windsor of 700X, the Royal Navy’s UAV Squadron and drone experts, was controlling the Puma from on board the Type 23 frigate.

“For me, this exercise has been really exciting,” he said.

“I’m an air traffic controller, and the new technology gives us a lot more opportunity for varied jobs. I used to be only deployable on the two aircraft carriers, now I’ve operated from P2000s, Batch 2 Offshore Patrol Vessels and now a Type 23.

“There are so many other nations making use of autonomous vehicles so it’s important to keep the momentum we’ve generated in this exercise so that the Royal Navy remains at the cutting edge.”

Minehunter HMS Hurworth, currently assigned to Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1, hosted a next-generation variant of REMUS 100 – an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle used for mine countermeasures, harbor security and hydrographic surveys.

On how autonomous vessels will affect the future of mine hunting, Lieutenant Thomas Hourigan, Operations Officer on HMS Hurworth said: “Ultimately, I believe it will make us more successful and we will grow and adapt to the new technology.

“We are always going to need people to make the final decisions but it’s all about the balance between the two.”

AB(WS) Jade Martin, was part of a team of six junior sailors who joined the exercise from HMS Nelson, giving newer personnel a chance to see how the Royal Navy and other NATO countries are developing technology.

She said: “Being in a multinational ops room with both military and civilians, getting hands on this kind of kit and testing it to its limits has been really rewarding.

“This is right at the start of my career so the opportunity to get out here and work with other nations trying out new kit that will be the future of the navy has been amazing.”

REPMUS and Dynamic Messenger come at a time when the Royal Navy is looking to increase its use of crewless systems.

It recently took on the XV Patrick Blackett, a testbed ship for autonomous kit, while quadcopters have been launched from flight decks of navy ships to deliver supplies.