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Royal Navy stages unmanned aerial system heavy-lift challenge

Royal Navy logistics drone trial
Photo: Royal Navy

The Royal Navy has trialed two different unmanned aerial systems during a heavy lift challenge designed to see how the systems could contribute to front-line operations.

The navy’s drone experts 700X Naval Air Squadron welcomed industry partners to their home base of RNAS Culdrose to test the two crewless aircraft.

It is the second time the drones have been trialed with initial testing last year the first step of showing how they could be utilized on operations.

Now, a second, more intense series of trials have taken place and saw Malloy Aeronautics’ T-600 quadcopter pitted against Windracers Autonomous Systems’ Ultra. Both showcased their abilities to carry heavy payloads of 100kg over long distance and more than 250kg over a shorter distance.

The heavy lift challenge is a collaboration between 700X, the navy’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer and Defence Equipment and Support’s (DE&S) Future Capability Group.

It aims to encourage industry partners to see what equipment they have which could be adapted for use by the Royal Navy to deliver supplies such as humanitarian stores, first aid, ammunition and spare parts to the front-line. Both Malloy and Windracers were given a £300,000 contract to further develop their drones.

And the aircraft impressed in the most recent trials which saw the Malloy T-600 fly with a 250kg payload while the fixed-wing Windracers Ultra dropped a 100kg payload 1,000km away to a platform replicating a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier flight deck. It was able to slow on approach and drop its package with pinpoint accuracy, the navy said.

Windracers Autonomous Systems’ Ultra UAS. Photo: Royal Navy

“The heavy lift challenge is surpassing all our expectations. This is a genuine, game-changing collaboration between the Royal Navy, DE&S’ Future Capability Group and industry and has, so far, produced quite spectacular results – all inside the same commercial framework we are able to iterate as one-team,” Brigadier Dan Cheesman, Royal Navy Chief Technology Officer, said.

“We are not there quite yet, but in perhaps as little as two months’ time, we will have the final ‘show don’t tell’ evidence we need to commence scaling to the hands of the warfighter at unprecedented pace.”

The Royal Navy heavy lift challenge aims to increase the number of uncrewed aircraft systems available on the market, at a rapid pace.

This will enable the navy and DE&S to explore, understand, develop, and acquire autonomous systems to deliver heavy payloads in a range of environments.

“This an important milestone for the heavy lift challenge. We have tested how scalable and usable the autonomous technology is, with promising results,” James Gavin, Head of the Future Capability Group said.

“We have demonstrated how our collaboration with the Royal Navy and industry partners can expedite the procurement process – enabling us to deliver cutting-edge technology at pace. Ultimately, this work will help the UK armed forces retain and grow its operational advantage and also deliver cost efficiencies.”

The Royal Navy trails follow similar ones conducted by its US counterpart, which successfully proved this concept last summer by delivering a small cargo for repairs between a warship and an auxiliary of the Military Sealift Command.

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.