british navy frigate

Navy awarded £75m for drones and autonomous ships

The UK defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, has announced that the government will provide a £75m fund for the Royal Navy to develop more lethal and autonomous technologies.

The Navy will use the investment to create drones for hunting mines and build two autonomous vessels to find and destroy sea mines. These ships would be installed with “cutting-edge sonars to enable remote mine-hunting at higher range, speed and accuracy in the Gulf” in order to identify and destroy sea mines.

The remaining money would go towards a major military-industrial technology “accelerator” hub, which will be called NavyX. The hub will focus on developing technologies to maximise the lethality and autonomy of robotic weapons – such as unmanned underwater vehicles – for use at sea.

“The Royal Navy’s new autonomy and lethality will look to overhaul and turbocharge the way the Royal Navy buys the latest technology, streamlining the process and creating a brand-new facility where industry, military and academia can test, assess and purchase new equipment,” a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said in a statement.

Speaking at a visit to QinetiQ’s Portsdown Technology Park in Portsmouth, Williamson spoke enthusiastically about the “science fiction” possibilities that future military technologies could allow, such as ambush operations executed by troops wearing jetpacks. As well as a prototype “jet suit”, the defence contractor impressed the minister with displays of their drones, sea vessels and a “hoverbike”. An aide told the Telegraph that the jet suit demonstrated at the event was not ready for frontline deployment.

“Today’s announcement will not only allow the Royal Navy to rapidly harness dynamic, cutting-edge equipment at speed, but also ensure they can outpace adversaries both on the water and the sea floor,” said Williamson. “Technology is moving faster than ever and, with the defence landscape rapidly evolving, we must ensure our armed forces are continually pushing the boundaries at the forefront of this change.”

The fund was welcomed by military leaders, with Admiral Sir Philip Jones, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff commenting that it was necessary for the Navy to be equipped with the latest technologies: “Across the generations, our willingness to embrace innovation has kept us one step ahead of our adversaries and to assure our continued success on operations into the future, it is vital that the Royal Navy continues to be equipped with the latest cutting-edge capabilities.”

The development of lethal autonomous weapons has caused alarm among academics, activists, politicians and industrialists. An international ban on lethal autonomous weapons was discussed at a 2018 UN meeting. Despite calls for a worldwide ban on these deadly weapons, development continues in Russia, the US, UK and elsewhere.

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