700X: Inside The Navy's Experimental Drone Squadron

The unit has been leading experimental training courses with members of the Royal Navy, as well as the Army and Royal Air Force.

The story of the Royal Navy's 700X Naval Air Squadron goes back to 1940 but few then could have imagined it leading the way with drones today.

The squadron, which is ready to deploy on warships, has created three new flights.

Phantom Flights A, B and C consist of eight sailors, with a ninth member joining later this year.

Each flight has a commander, an air engineering technician and naval airman, all capable of using remote-piloted aerial vehicles - also known as drones.

The unit has a history of testing new aircraft for the military, including Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, and it trains tri-service personnel in the use of unmanned aircraft.

What is 700X Naval Air Squadron?

700X Squadron - the 'X' being short for 'experimental' - uses Predannack Airfield in Cornwall for training and testing, although it is officially based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose.

Predannack Airfield, developed during the Second World War, is an ideal location for training due to its proximity to the sea and protected airspace.

The unit is part of the Fleet Air Arm and works under the motto 'Experientia Docet' - which translates to 'Experience Teaches'.

One of its most recent tasks has been to prepare the first Royal Navy-owned and operated drones for deployment.

Member Royal Navy’s dedicated drone squadron, 700X, releasing drone JULY 2020 CREDIT ROYAL NAVY
The unit focuses on the development and innovation of UAVs (Picture: Royal Navy).

The unit was formed in January 1940 as 700 Naval Air Squadron, with the aim of testing new technology and acting as a headquarters for all catapult aircraft on battleships and cruisers.

700 NAS was disbanded in March 1944, but has been re-commissioned and de-commissioned on numerous occasions since then.

After being re-commissioned and re-christened 700X NAS in 2014, the unit was assigned to the development of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology in the Royal Navy.

Earlier this year, a team from RNAS Culdrose squadron spent a week testing drones aboard the fishery protection ship HMS Mersey.

Watch: Personnel test the Puma drone.

Speaking at the beginning of this year, Lieutenant Commander Justin Matthews, Commanding Officer of 700X NAS, explained the potential of remotely-piloted air systems.

"These remotely-piloted systems can act as an extension to a ship’s suite of sensors and potentially as a weapon delivery platform."

A few months later, he said: "There is no doubt that remotely-piloted technology is the future and we are making significant strides in this field of expertise.

"As we move forward, we shall continue to research, develop and test these systems, especially in their use with the Royal Navy."

Lt Cdr Matthews told Forces News last month: "We are educating both ourselves and the rest of the Navy in how these can complement, and then be integrated into, the rest of the fleet.

"What we’re trying to do is free up manned aviation, so the Merlin numbers for example, if we can put drones doing some of the tasks that they were doing, you free up Merlin hours and they can concentrate on the stuff that manned aviation is good at."

What equipment does the squadron use? 

700X NAS is using the first Royal Navy-owned and operated drones.

Although the ScanEagle UAV was used by the military in the Gulf until around two years ago, it was not Navy-owned and operated.

Last month, the unit put their new Phantom Flight equipment to work ahead of Exercise Merlin Storm.

It saw 700X integrate their drones in all aspects of the exercise providing airborne surveillance.

700X NAS launching a Puma in Norway earlier this year (Picture: LPhot Joe Cater/Royal Navy).

This year has seen the squadron make significant breakthroughs with the Puma, flying the system in Arctic conditions.

The UAV has a wingspan of around 2.5 metres and is able to stay in the air for more than two hours, flying for 20 kilometres.

The Puma, made up of a light-weight airframe with cameras and a flight system, can be launched directly to and from a ship.

Controlled from an operating console, the Puma captures information and feeds it into a computer.

Ian Parlour, aircraft engineer technician and drone pilot at 700X Naval Air Squadron told Forces News last month: "The Puma all environments [drone] is used for surveillance... we can fly it at height, fly it well out the way of enemies or out of line of sight.

Beginners use the One Bravo to learn about flying drones.

"We can then capture information that can then further be used to develop missions.

"The advantage of it is not having to launch an aircraft, put anyone in danger, so it’s good to know that when we go out we can plan missions."

Beginners start out on the One Bravo - a much smaller drone than the Puma which still has its uses on the battlefield despite its size.

"[The] fundamentals of it are trying to extend your area of coverage," Lt Cdr Matthews said.

"For example, the One Bravos - they might just want to see what’s on the other side of a wall or a fence and they can launch a small system and it will hop over the fence and they can see who or what is on the other side."

The Royal Navy drone team is expected to deploy for the first time by the end of the year.

Cover image: 700X trialled their Phantom Kit during Exercise Merlin Storm (Picture: POPhot Des Wade).