Navy uses tiny drones to find safe route through Antarctic ice for the first time

Navy uses tiny drones to find safe route through Antarctic ice for the first time

HMS Protector has been trialing small drones to help her negotiate the Antarctic ice for the first time.

The survey ship, which has just completed her third stint around the frozen continent this austral summer, has launched both a tiny quadcopter and a 3D-printed aircraft equipped with cameras.

It’s the first time the Royal Navy has used unmanned aerial vehicles in this part of the world – a precursor to the large-scale Unmanned Warrior exercise later this year when robot vehicles and systems from around the world will be tested over land, over sea and beneath the waves.

The Navy has been operating ScanEagle ‘eyes in sky’ from frigates in the Gulf for the past couple of years; they’ve fed vital live imagery back to ships conducting maritime security patrols.

The craft launched from Protector are considerably smaller and far less hi-tech, but still provided the icebreaker with real-time high-quality information courtesy of a detailed picture of the surrounding environment from a perspective that is only available from the air; Protector has a flight deck but no hangar which means, unlike her predecessor HMS Endurance, she cannot operate helicopters while on patrol so far from the UK.

The quadcopter has been used for short-range reconnaissance missions, while the 3D-printed mini aircraft has been sent off on longer patrols.

The brainchild of experts at Southampton University, the Laser-Sintered Aircraft – shortened to SULSA – is made of nylon, printed in four major parts and assembled without the use of any tools; it’s the world’s first ‘printed’ airplane.

It’s controlled from a laptop on board, cruises at nearly 60mph and is all but noiseless thanks to its tiny engine. Each one costs no more than £7,000 – cheaper than an hour’s flying time by a Fleet Air Arm helicopter.

Having been tested off the Dorset coast last summer with HMS Mersey, the 3kg aircraft has been given a much more rigorous work-out over Antarctica. After flights of up to 30 minutes’ duration (sadly, you don’t get 24 hours from SULSA…), it’s fished out of the icy waters by one of Protector’s boats so it can be launched once more.

“This trial of these low-cost but highly versatile aircraft has been an important first step in establishing the utility of unmanned aerial vehicles in this region,” said Captain Rory Bryan, Protector’s Commanding Officer. “It’s demonstrated to me that this is a capability that I can use to great effect.”

The results of Protector’s trial have been fed back to Navy headquarters in Portsmouth, 700X Squadron in Culdrose – the Royal Navy’s dedicated unmanned aircraft unit – and the Maritime Warfare Centre at HMS Collingwood, whose team devise the Navy’s tactics.

“I am delighted with the successful deployment of small unmanned aerial vehicles from HMS Protector in the Antarctic,” said Commodore James Morley, the Navy’s Assistant Chief of Staff Maritime Capability.

“The whole team have overcome significant hurdles to demonstrate the enormous utility of these aircraft for affordable and persistent surveillance and reconnaissance from ships – even in the environmentally challenging environment of the Antarctic.

“Although this was a relatively short duration trial to measure the relative merits of fixed and rotary wing embarked systems, we are continuing to review our options for acquisition of maritime unmanned aerial vehicles in the future.”