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Following US Navy, Royal Navy eyes logistics drone for at-sea supplies

Skyways UAS US Navy demonstration
The Royal Navy is closely watching the progress the US Navy is making with its logistics UAS project, which demonstrated at sea delivery this summer. Photo: US Navy

The Royal Navy’s support arm is considering the use of drones to deliver mail and other supplies to ships underway at sea.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) – whose ships and sailors have supported Royal Navy operations since 1905 with fuel, food, spare parts, ammunition and other supplies – is looking into the possibility of crewless aircraft performing some of the more routine, lighter duties.

While some loads are too heavy for current small-scale drones to transport, seven out of ten resupply missions involve the transfer of loads up to 100lbs/45kg, so the head of the RFA, Commodore David Eagles, wants to see if the work is ‘dronable’.

Using drones would save time, money and sailors, and free up helicopters for other duties, the service said.

The US Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command is experimenting with unmanned aircraft moving relatively lightweight supplies – up to 25lbs/11kg – between ships, but over distances which could be greater than 200 miles.

The Royal Navy announcement comes after its US counterpart successfully proved this concept over the summer by delivering a small cargo for repairs between a warship and an auxiliary of the Military Sealift Command – the US Navy’s equivalent of the RFA.

In fact, Royal Marines have also tested re-supply by drone both on the battlefield and on the beachhead, using autonomous systems, from Malloy Aeronautics Ltd, to ferry up to 150lbs/68kg supplies; including ammunition, blood and Bergen backpacks to troops in the line from either ships off shore or bases to the rear.

“The RFA is looking very closely at the Military Sealift Command and the opportunities around using drones to make deliveries at sea,” said Commodore Eagles.

The RFA Commodore regularly confers with his counterpart in the MSC, Rear Admiral Michael Wettlaufer, which conducted the summer trials; and he has asked his liaison team to follow their progress and share some lessons of the Royal Navy’s own trials with similar systems.

The US Navy launched its cargo drone project after recognizing the cost and inefficiency of tactical aircraft like the H-60 helicopter and V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft flying resupply missions that could be completed by Group-3 size UAS. The MSC tapped NAWCAD to demonstrate an ability for an autonomous vehicle to fly these logistics missions.