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Air, sea drones put through their paces on Solent testing range

Roboat firms and pals pile in

By Gareth Corfield, 18 Jul 2017

More roboats and autonomous flying machines will be tested around the Solent after a consortium of companies was handed £1.5m to set up a drone test range.

The idea is to use one of Britain's most sheltered sea areas for testing robot boats and air vehicles. Nestled between Southampton and the Isle of Wight, the Solent has all the features of a busy sea area – big commercial ships, warships, weekend yacht sailors, high-speed hovercraft – while not being a million miles out to sea.

"The Solent area has a growing number of world-class organisations operating in the autonomy sector and we are excited to be working with ASV, Blue Bear, MES, SeeByte and the University of Southampton to launch this concept this week," said the head of technology at BAE Systems' Combat Systems division, Frank Cotton, in a canned quote.

It is anticipated that the full test service will go live later this year. A "secure maritime communications network" and a command and control centre using "the same technology BAE Systems provides to Royal Navy warships" will be at the heart of the testing centre.

James Scanlan, professor of design within engineering and the environment at the University of Southampton, said in a supporting canned quote: "The autonomous test range represents a huge step forward in being able to bring technology from the laboratory to realistic testing and exploitation."

£457,000 of the funding for the test area comes from the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership.

As the UK's commercial drone sector grows, finding enough space to safely test both the vehicles and their sensors is a challenge. Suppliers to the government have no problem with this – they just ask the MoD if they can borrow some of the vast chunks of the British Isles that are reserved for military training. The civilian sector, however, has had – until now – to make do with whatever areas it can find.

One of the firms involved in the test range, ASV Global, was featured on El Reg last summer. Though its current fleet is more "tele-operation" than true AI, in the words of its MD Dan Hook, the firm does reckon that, technologically, their craft are capable of circumnavigating Britain while being controlled from their HQ.

BAE Systems has also been looking for a slice of the roboat pie, as well as expanding into airborne drones. At the Royal Navy's annual Unmanned Warrior exercise, the giant defence supplier turned up with a Pacific 950 rigid inflatable boat to which it had fitted autonomous navigation capability. The idea is to use roboats as a means of extending warships' sensor capabilities and to reduce the risk to human life in operations such as mine clearance.

Not all went completely smoothly at Unmanned Warrior. At least one flying drone was lost overboard from a civilian testbed ship after its operator made a mistake during takeoff and accidentally commanded it to backflip into the icy waters of the Minch, off Scotland's Atlantic coast. ®

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