The Royal Navy has begun trials of a drone boat on the river Thames as part of mass air, sea and undersea testing of autonomous military vehicle systems in Britain this autumn.

At a running length of 32 feet, the Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) boat weighs 2.2 tons and has a top speed of 60 knots (nearly 70mph). The design utilises the wake-efficient Bladerunner hull structure and boasts a 360-degree camera, radar, radio, and GPS system.

The MAST system is under development by ASV Ltd in Porchester, with research funding from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), with a view to developing a range of autonomous maritime systems. The system is intended to be used by the Navy for remote assessment of possible enemy vessels in congested maritime environments. It is currently being trialled as a reconnaissance vehicle and carries no armaments.

Monday’s tidal Thames trials of MAST were carried out under the accompaniment of HMS Archer:

The Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) being trialed in London

The Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST) being trialed in London (picture: MoD)

The Royal Navy’s Fleet Robotics Officer Peter Pipkin commented of the wider ‘Unmanned warrior’ program: “This is a chance to take a great leap forward in Maritime Systems – not 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.”

The MAST trials mark the start of autumn-long trials for over forty other autonomous maritime systems, including undersea and air-based systems.

“Part of the business is working out which ones are going to be useful,” said a royal Navy spokesman during the trials. “That’s why we’re doing online warrior: because we need to test up to forty different systems – not all like [MAST]. Some fly and some go under the water…to see what actually can contribute to our operational capability in a successful way in the next few years.”

He continued: “We’re testing systems that look out for other stuff, and we’re also testing whether it can look out for itself. When it’s autonomous, it has its own set of cameras, and it’s programmed to avoid other vessels and to deal with freak waves and that sort of thing by seeing what’s coming…it can [shadow] another ship if we want it to, quietly. We’re working out how to make those systems work in what’s quite a small vessel bouncing around very fast.”