MIGHTY HISTORY

Britain unveils drone that will protect vulnerable warships

Britain has created and now tested a kit that turns small vessels into highly capable drones that can defend warships from attack or search out mines, enemy vessels, and shore defenses that threaten a naval task force. The MAST-13 system was tested alongside the HMS Argyll, extending that vessel's sight and combat reach.

(Royal Navy, Crown Copyright)

Britain's Ministry of Defence has announced the successful testing of a new kit that turns small combat boats into drones that can protect larger warships, warning them of drones, small enemy vessels, and shore defenses, among other threats.


The British Royal Navy attached a kit to the Pacific 24 rigid inflatable boat. The resulting Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed was 13 meters, or 43 feet, in length, so it is known as MAST-13. Because Britain likes to name their things simply.

The MAST-13 was demonstrated at the Defence and Security Equipment International Conference on September 10 in London as senior members of the British defense community looked on. The MAST-13 was tasked with protecting the HMS Argyll in the London Docklands. The MAST-13 detected threats on the riverbed and transmitted them back to Argyll.

"MAST-13 is pioneering the future of Unmanned Surface Vehicles for our world-leading navy," said U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. "The development of unmanned technology is vital for success in modern warfare, going beyond the capability of traditional ships to attack and defend in uncertain environments.

"As more advanced technology and new threats continue to evolve, collaborative technology development ensures we are constantly pushing the boundaries to give our armed forces the best capabilities possible," he continued.

Britain is investing heavily in protecting large ships as its navy has constructed new carriers that it can ill-afford to lose. This makes force protection a key mission for the Royal Navy moving forward, and the MAST-13 could be perfect for that mission.

In addition, the Royal Navy expects to use the program in anti-piracy and border control operations.

The technological developments necessary for MAST-13 fall under Britain's NavyX program to develop autonomous vessels. The Programme Director for NavyX, Royal Navy Commander Sean Trevethan, said, "Ultimately this will change the way we fight, through integrated command and control, and lead to the development of new tactics, techniques, and procedures."

He also said, "This is much more than an autonomous surface vessel demonstration for the Royal Navy. What we are doing is the first step of exploiting system architecture in a complex warship to integrate an unmanned system into the ship."

Vessels like the MAST-13 would be highly valued in the potential, but still unlikely, war with Iran. Iran has historically put pressure on the international community by restricting movement through the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian territory dominates the narrow waterway.

The MAST-13 could help larger ships moving through the strait avoid mines and other threats in the case of open conflict.

BAE Systems, the company which makes the PAC24 RIB, has also created an autonomous system for the Pacific 950 RIB.