A robot boat delivered supplies to a Royal Navy warship on operations in the Gulf for the first time as the British and US navies pushed tech boundaries.
Sailors from HMS Bangor collected equipment ferried out to their ship by a small American boat to allow them to continue a minehunting exercise.
The unmanned jet boat has been used by the US Navy to hunt mines, lowering sonar into the water and patrolling a pre-planned area of ocean looking for suspicious objects on or tethered to the seabed.
But it’s also capable of carrying supplies – currently no larger/heavier than can be lifted by human beings – with the goal of re-supplying a ship without it having to break-off operations… and crucially without endangering sailors delivering those supplies.
But as trials and tests continue, the crewless craft could deliver larger, heavier supplies which could be craned aboard a minehunter at sea.
The successful trials with Bangor – which delivered vital supplies for her Seafox robot submersible to the ship to allow her crew to identify and neutralise mock mines – were carried out during the latest joint US-UK workout in the Middle East.
Every few months the two navies’ minehunting forces based in Bahrain head out together to ensure they can both work side-by-side seamlessly.
For the autonomous boat trials, a specialist US Minehunting Unit joined Royal Navy support vessel RFA Lyme Bay, which acts as a ‘mother ship’ to British hunters in the Gulf.
They launched the crewless boat from the ship’s dock and directed it towards Bangor, which launched her sea boat to collect the delivery – although ultimately the goal is for the robot craft to berth alongside the minehunter and the supplies lifted off.
“The idea is that a minehunter will be able to be in the middle of a minefield hunting mines and that it wouldn’t need to break task to go to replenish – it would be able to be sent stores autonomously towards its position, maintaining minehunting operations,” explained Bangor’s Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander Rob Couzens.
Other elements of the US-UK exercise were more conventional. Bangor hosted a US sailor and showed how the RN uses Seafox – which is also operated by the US Navy, while American clearance divers directed the Brits on to mines they’d found.
Bangor used a combination of Seafox and her divers to identify mines in operations running around-the-clock 24/7 with the divers ‘disposing’ of five devices with explosive charges.
“Diving is always my core role but rarely do we get to do so much of it in a short period of time,” said Diver Zak Harris.
“Handling real explosives and actually blowing something up not once but five times was incredible! It’s also fantastic to be able to prove to a wider audience just how capable we are.”
The biggest task, however, was recovering the numerous drill mines which had been laid over the years so that they could be used again in future exercises.
Traditional tethered/buoyant mines lurking beneath the surface were cut from their chains by a Sea Dragon minesweeping helicopter, allowing the devices to bob to the surface for Bangor’s sailors to recover.
Otherwise, the divers fixed lifting strops to mines – some of which were partially buried in the seabed.
By the end of the ten-day exercise Bangor and her crew had recovered 17 drill mines and the dive team executed 24 successful dives in total!
“The exercise has been extremely rewarding from a professional sense,” said mine warfare specialist Lauren Stone. “It’s exciting to put into action everything that we learned during training. Seeing all of the mines on the jetty after the exercise really brought home how hard we all worked as a team and made me proud of the ship.”
Lt Cdr Couzens added: “The whole exercise provided a fantastic opportunity to hone our mine hunting techniques in partnership with our allies and learn from each other. It was brilliant to see the crew throw themselves into it with the drive and passion that they always show.”