An autonomous minesweeper system has been handed over to the Royal Navy, Defence Minister Guto Bebb has announced.

Following a period of successful trials the demonstrator system could go on to be used by the Royal Navy in the future to defeat the threat of modern digital mines. The system has been designed and manufactured by Atlas Elektronik UK in Dorset, under a £13 million contract with the Ministry of Defence which has sustained around 20 jobs and created 15 new jobs with the company say the MoD.

Defence Minister Guto Bebb said:

“This autonomous minesweeper takes us a step closer to taking our crews out of danger and allowing us to safely clear sea lanes of explosives, whether that’s supporting trade in global waters and around the British coastline, or protecting our ships and shores. Easily transported by road, sea and air, the high-tech design means a small team could put the system to use within hours of it arriving in theatre. We are investing millions in innovative technology now, to support our military of the future.”

The Royal Navy say that systems innovative and modernised technology has the ability to defeat today’s digital sea mines which can detect and target military ships passing overhead. The sweeper system, which features a “sense and avoid” capability, could also work together with other similar autonomous systems for the common goal of making our waters safer.

The project also aims to demonstrate the viability of an unmanned system that can safely and successfully clear mines and which is designed to be operated from a land or ship-based control station and can be deployed from a suitable ship or port. Over the last four months, the system has been put through its paces by Atlas Elektronik and Defence Equipment and Support team members and the Royal Navy’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials Team (MASTT).

The system was tested against a number of performance requirements, for example, how well it cleared mines, whether the autonomous system could successfully avoid obstacles and the overall system performance. 

Image of the new Royal Navy autonomous minesweeper, seen here at Weymouth Bay, in Dorset.

Brigadier Jim Morris Royal Marines – Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff in Maritime Capability, and Senior Responsible Officer for the Mine Counter Measures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme said:

“The Mine Countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability Combined Influence Minesweeping system is the Royal Navy’s first fully autonomous capability demonstrator and paves the way for the introduction of this technology across the full range of maritime capabilities. Combined Influence Minesweeping is a critical component of the Mine Countermeasures capability.  This autonomous system will restore the Royal Navy’s sweep capability, enabling it to tackle modern digital mines that may not otherwise be discovered in challenging minehunting conditions.

This autonomous sweep system represents a fundamental step in the Navy’s transition to autonomous offboard systems to counter the threat posed to international shipping by the sea mine; we look forward to commencing demonstration of the associated minehunting system in 2019.”

The handover of the system to the Royal Navy is a significant milestone for the Mine Countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme, which aims to de-risk maritime autonomous systems and introduce these new technologies into the Royal Navy.

Director Ships Support Neal Lawson, of the MOD’s procurement organisation, Defence Equipment and Support, said:

“The autonomous minesweeper offers a commander the ability to defeat mines that cannot be countered by current hunting techniques and significantly reduces the risk to crew members in pressured and time-constrained operations.

The system can offer greater flexibility and upgradability, allowing the Royal Navy to respond better to the sea-mine threat in the long-term and operate more effectively around the world and I’m therefore delighted to be back here at Bincleaves, where I started my MOD career 29 years ago, to mark the handover of this critical programme.”

The system will now undergo a series of more detailed trials with the Royal Navy.

44 COMMENTS

  1. Will they still need crew on board to actually make the mine safe and are only fully autonomous I’m regards to sailing or is everything they do fully autonomous?

    • Sweeping doesn’t detect…These are the upto date version of the Combined influence sweeping system that was fitted to the HUNT Class MCMVs .It sets the mines off if the mine is a pressure, magnetic or acoustic mine.
      If its a buoyant mine it will cut the mooring wire allowing the mine to float up to the surface to be dealt with with a 50cal.

    • I’m pretty sure I have seen senior officials state that these can be used with the RFAs, particularly with the Bay class – due to the Well Dock, and they can be used on/with the current minesweeping vessels. Can also be deployed from other assets, such as the future frigates – hence the emphasis on large mission bays.

    • I’m sure I once read that this programme was the first step towards replacing the entire MCMV fleet with systems like this and that first step included a USV in a mountable pod on the exisitng MCMV fleet. I don’t know whether plans have changed since though.

  2. I understand that the concept is that theses would ( along with other GRP autonomous systems) replace the need for expensive specialist boats with GRP hulls with systems that can be mounted on vessels with mission bays ect ( Type 26, 31 and OPVs) so effectively the hunts would be replaced with a set of autonomous systems for deployment on the steel hulled escort and OPV fleets.

    It’s potentially one of the saving graces of out lovely new rivers ( there are some clever system wide thinkers in the MOD)

    • I think the plan is to purchase ‘mothership’ minesweepers which will act as a hub for multiple autonomous platforms to replace the hunts and sandowns, like the BMT venari concept which by the looks of it was designed for the specifications, but I doubt we’ll get many!

  3. This is great news and is the start of a move to more multi mission ships (T31).

    These can be manned or unmanned and have the ability to locate and destroy mines with the right loads. A T31 with 2-4 of these in its mission bay is a step change and reduces the need for dedicated platforms, as they can be delivered from any of our RFA or RN ships.

    Of course divers will still be required, but this does do an awful lot of the leg work at a much reduced cost.

    15 minehunters/sweepers can be replaced with 15 T31 and that is a game changer.

    • We do now seem to find ourselves needing to use our minehunters/sweepers (and our survey vessels for that matter) for roles other than their specialist roles so going this direction and being able to make the motherships more general purpose really does seem to be the way to go.

      Even if the extra motherships built to control these were “only” more River B2s those vessels would still be way more credible when deployed in non-core general policing roles (e.g. migrants/refugees, pirates, smugglers, general presence & flying the flag) than a Hunt or a Sandown given that a River B2 can at least lillypad and refuel a helicopter, can embark something like 50 marines, and with suitable reasonably modest investment could have a very significant wide-area surveillance capability via embarked containerised drones such as a Schiebel S-100.

      Having said above that even a River B2 would be more credible in other roles, obviously a T31 would be even better, as would something like BMT’s Venari 85.

      MoD/RN have the potential to do some exciting things with Hunt/Sandown replacement. Let’s hope we can recapture some of the UK/RN’s glory days here and lead rather than follow to implement and deploy vessels and systems that are genuinely innovative and be capability-enhancing for the RN as a whole.

    • I like the thinking but one Type 31 crew numbers would need roughly 3 MCM crews. River 2 might be closer to one for one or maybe one for 2 MCM. Its beyond my pay grade but I’m sure the RN are working out what’s possible. Would be good not to have plastic MCMs doing OPV work as has happened in the past, as they are chocolate teapots in a fight.

      • Good point Paul, but at the end of the day we all recognise that we need more people and for every T23/T45 you get 2 crews for a T26/T31, so I think some smoothing needs to occur.

        At the end of the day we need to have a better combat fleet that can defend itself and the carriers as we will need 2 carrier groups (as we have 2 carriers).

        I see systems like this and Taranis/Magma in the UCAV space being critical to the UK being a premium player, Add in the article on Apache and the cost of that is peanuts for what you are getting, we really need to go for the platforms in a big way and concentrate on core platforms supported by assets like these.

        Said it before but a F35 providing all the CnC and jamming, controlling 2-4 taranis into highly contested airspace is a game changer in terms of capability and cost, same applies here, A carrier group with 2 T45, 2 T26 and 2 T31 configured to deploy different assets (T31 the atlas system lets say) is just awesome. Give them MADL CEC and we are world leading.

        Not gonna happen soon – but I think the FSL is onboard with this way of thinking.

        Lastly, the Navy needs to get back to 30,000 sailors in order to give them the harmonisation and careers that the millennial generation require.

        Not cheap, but defence never is – it is however the right thing to do and the UK can afford it, if it wants to.

      • A very good point on T31 crew numbers Paul. BMT describes the crew requirement of Venator 110 in its technical brief thus – “Even in the full combatant configuration, the core crew consists of 85 personnel, capable of maintaining 24 hour operations”. I’m not sure what that might drop to in a Venator-110 derived T31 that was in more of an OPV configuration which would probably be enough for extra vessels added primarily as mine hunter/clearance motherships vs Sandown’s 34 or Hunt’s 45. Maybe the crew requirements wouldn’t be massively adrift but your point is still well taken.

        Ultimately Pacman27 is right though, the personnel squeeze in the RN needs to be addressed otherwise capabilities will never be enhanced.

        Frustratingly BMT say nothing (that I have spotted) about the proposed crew complement for Venari 85. That is specifically designed for the minesweeping mothership role with a good rear working deck but still space to also include a flight deck and a hanger for a UAV all in an 85m hull. That might be a very interesting option to explore as well. Venari 85 is just a paper design with no info on crew complement, range, speed, construction standards etc but if the design could have been developed earlier and with all those specs having satisfactory values a big part of me wishes that we had 5 of those in the water or in build rather than the 5 River Batch 2s. I’m not a River B2 hater by any means but the Venari 85 does look very interesting. I would love to know some of those missing pieces of info and BMT’s estimates of likely cost for various configurations.

        • I think the Venari design is too late now, we need to create a standard fleet based around 6-8 major hull types and make them adaptable through the systems they carry

          For me we can get more effect out of 2 Carrier Battle Groups (Juno and Gold) and 4 Task Groupsfor the RN surface fleet(N,S,E,W)

          Each Carrier Group would consist of:

          1 CVF
          2 T26 Global Combat Ship (AAW capable – T45 initially)
          4 T31 Global Mission Ship
          2 FFT Tide
          2 Joint Amphibious Logistic Ship (Karel Doorman Support and Helicopter ship)

          Each Task Group would consist of:

          2 T26
          4 T31
          1 FFT
          1 JALS
          1 FLo FLo
          8 Patrol Boats (Safeboats Mk6 or similar)

          This gives us a total surface fleet of 90 ships including all RFA and small patrol boats – add in a maintenance fleet and it will bring us close to 100 vessels.

          This means the RN would require 4 surface ships every year over a 25 year period in support of the NSS.

          The replacement for the solid support ships are critical in all of this – as they can be used in amphibious platforms, humanitarian, helicopter carriers as well as their day to day of being fleet support ships.

          To make this a reality systems like the mine countermeasures need to come onboard to release hulls for more escorts.

          Lots of moving parts – but if we go for these systems and become world leaders in their development and use that must be a good thing all round surely

      • I suspect not unfortunately, but wanted to make the point that if we get the mine countermeasures right then it could release the minehunting fleet to be replaced by an escort that could deploy these systems.

        A T26 or T31 with these available or even a bay/solid support ship or Tide would be able to deploy these with the right specialists onboard.

        The rest is wishful thinking I am afraid.

  4. Whilst i am sure they are only there for testing purpose, but it is funny that in all the pictures you can clearly see a crew on the boat. If this is what they mean by unmanned, then the vikings had that cover also 😉

    What isn’t clear to me is whether this system is only for detecting mines or also for taking them out.

    • It can take them out by sending a remote device down to explode it once found.

      It’s a very comprehensive system, but as gunbusters will rightly point out, does have its limitations as everything does.

      Think Defence has some good articles on this and the US have been using elements of this for several years (as have the UK ) . This is the first time an integrated solution has been brought together.

  5. A good and useful additional capability for the Royal Navy to operate along with the existing MCMV’s

  6. There already exist autonomous submersible systems able to deploy and place explosive charges to destroy mines once they’ve been detected so, no, there is no requirement to have a diver onboard.
    BTW, is there a description of what we’re looking at in the bottom photo? Is it part of the sweep that is following the lead boat or are they independent vessels that are travelling in convoy?

    • We do lots of great things….then sell them for a quick buck. I’m looking forward to seeing how much British engineering buys in the Cayman Islands.

    • Thales is leading an Anglo-French team to produce a prototype unmanned minehunting system (the Atlas system is for mine sweeping.) Team members include BAE Systems, ASV and ECA supported by Saab and Kongsberg. ukdj has a number of articles on this, the prototypes are due for trials next year.

  7. So this is a sweeper, right? Not a mine hunter. So it’s an influence sweep, whether noise or magnetic? So it doesn’t find mines by sonar and then sends something like a Seafox to detonate them? It sounds as if it tricks a clever digital mine into thinking a real warship has passed over thus triggering an explosion? Hence the need for it to be unmanned and the need for sub-vehicles, all remotely controlled? So there is a real chance that some of these vehicles will be destroyed as part of the sweeping process? Or does it work by streaming influence sweep wires between dispersed remotely operated vehicles thus reducing the probability of one of them being destroyed? The announcement is very short on information! Obviously deliberately…

  8. Unmanned minesweepers….great.
    Will work perfectly with our unmanned frigates…lol
    Sorry couldn’t resist.

  9. Right then time for a Mine Countermeasures lesson.
    The RN currently has Hunt and Sandown MCMVs.
    The Sandown is designed for deep water mine hunting using its VDS sonar to detect and kill mines one by one. Its a very slow but effective method of clearing mines. It would be almost impossible to detect and clear a field of mines using this method in say the Straits of Hormuz in anything less than months.
    The mines are destroyed by a remote vehicle or divers using explosives.

    HUNTS MCMVs originally where fitted with the Combined Influence Sweep system for use in shallower waters. This allowed the vessel to put a number of magnetic, acoustic and mechanical tows out behind the ship to hopefully set off mines. Because the towing vessel was going into the minefield the HUNTS where Non Magnetic ships as opposed to the Sandowns that where low magnetic. It costs a shed load of money to build a vessel that is low magnetic and even more to build something non magnetic hence the cost per meter of a ship for an MCMV is amongst the highest in the fleet.
    Anyway, the HUNTS had a magnetic sweep deployed by a massive winch system, that pulsed 4000 + amps in various wave forms through a buoyant electrical cable to create a magnetic field to trigger mines. HUNTS also deployed at the same time a Towed Acoustic Generator which was a massive electrically powered hydraulically driven noise maker that produced noise in various wave forms to trigger mines.
    On top of that you also deployed the mechanical sweep cutters to cut the wires of buoyant moored mines that could then be destroyed on the surface.

    The combined sweep capability was removed from HUNTS many years ago and this new system is going to finally replace it. It will need to deploy from large vessels, not MCMVs as they wont be able to carry it and stay stable when its deployed due to the change in top weight.
    Now here is the snag with sweeping.
    Sweeping doesn’t detect mines it sets them off.
    So just because you have swept a channel doesn’t mean there are no mines. It just means that the counter on the mine hasn’t reached zero yet. The counters are designed to count the number ship signatures passing over and to discriminate between sweeping and actual vessels. So the mine will look at acoustic, magnetic, pressure and shadow indications to decide if its a valid target. If the mine is programmed with a specific ship signature it will sit fat dumb and happy waiting for that specific signature to arrive, ignoring everything else. If a mine is laid in a harbor it can distinguish if a ship is going in or coming out as it would better get a warship when it is coming out and loaded up.
    So a mine can for instance ignore multiple T45 or T23s or merchant ships and wait to ruin the the QE carriers day. And ruin it it could. Large Soviet era ground mines where more than capable of killing a US carrier not just with the explosion but also the bubble pulse which would smash everything in side of it to pieces.

    So you need to sweep often and repeatedly to get the mines in a channel to detonate and even then there is no guarantee you have got them all to go off. Using a UASv helps in that you can send the thing backwards and forwards up a channel simulating multiple ship types and targets quickly. If something goes boom you don’t kill anyone and the boat is easily replaced. However sweeping is not a panacea…using it in conjunction with a dedicated MCMV hunter ( Sandown Sonar 2093 or Hunt Sonar 2193) is the most effective solution.

    There end’th the MCMV lesson. Hope that helps with what sweeping and hunting can do.
    I really enjoyed my time looking after the combined sweep gear. However I never got used to pushing 4000+Amps through a cable that was in floating in water…it just went against all of my engineering training in that water and wiggly’s don’t and should never ever mix.

    • Thanks Gunbuster. Useful stuff. Already knew most of it except for the bit that the Hunts had lost their sweeps, nor did I understand the comparative effectiveness of sweeping vs hunting – I just thought they were used for tackling different types of mines in different situations. In my book, the only way to do a proper job is to hunt and destroy, however long it takes. Looking forward to the Thales led remote hunting system for the RN that uses some of the very clever UUVs the Swedes have developed. So I guess what you’re saying is that this remote sweeping system in combination with the still to appear remote hunting system, perhaps all transported by and controlled from (say) a modified Bay class, plus a few manned Sandowns to boot, is the MCM par excellence…

    • Fabulous info. Thanks. Whenever I get a “deep dive” (no pun intended) into some area of military tech I am amazed how sophisticated it has all become. It’s all a very long way from cannons, crossbows and swords.

      I can definitely sympathise with your final comment. My instinctive reaction when you first mentioned the 4000+Amp towed wire was one of utter shock. Scary. Still, if you were nervous imagine what the fish must have been thinking 🙂

      • If it all went wrong when you pulled in all the wires, cables, otters, kites and floats you would get huge tangled mess to cut and hacksaw up to get it all onboard.
        Anything that stops that has to be better.

  10. In January 1941 my 38ft launch was equipped with an early echo sounder and attached to the Clyde Minesweeping Squadron as Echo Sounding Boat. I think she was probably the first dedicated RN minehunter.

  11. Centuries ago, as a young raw midshipman I remember joining Gavington and being told that I had to ride and help steer one of the otters. I didn’t fall for it but apparently the mid before me did! That must have been hilarious for the crew to watch. A real moral booster! Of course, nowadays Health and Safety and being nice to snowflakes would never allow such practices to take place. Those were the days….

  12. modern mines are a true menace – most can be programmed to detect the acoustic signature of the propeller and the frequency band it operates at – so even if you slow the propeller speed down and try and fool it, it will detect the frequency ranger and compute that its still the same vessel

    you don’t need to blow holes in ships to cripple, them – just create enough of a pressure pulse to wreck the shaft line or damage the CPP control rods and it’s game over as a fighting unit

  13. So the boat is unmanned, but how many people are needed to keep it running? Maintenance, remote controllers, refueling, etc. Anyone know?

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