Navy Drones Set For Landmark First Deployment

The Royal Navy’s drone team, 700X Naval Air Squadron, is expected to deploy for the first time by the end of the year.

The very first Royal Navy-owned and operated drones are expected to be ready for deployment in a matter of weeks.

It represents a significant milestone in the service's development of cutting-edge technology ready for use in battle zones.

Members of 700X Naval Air Squadron test and operate the drones at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose.

They were recently part of Exercise Merlin Storm, which featured Royal Marines preparing to deploy to the Caribbean during hurricane season, providing airborne surveillance for the Commandos' helicopters.

Ian Parlour, Aircraft Engineer Technician (AET), Drone Pilot, 700X Naval Air Squadron said: "The Puma all environments [drone] is used for surveillance that we can fly it at height, fly it well out the way of enemies or out of line of sight.

"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."

The Navy's Puma drone has roughly a 2.5-metre wingspan and can fly for 20 kilometres.

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

Royal Navy personnel fly a Puma drone and carry out data analysis of information captured from it.

700X Naval Air Squadron’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Justin Matthews said: "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."

The technology has already been tested in more extreme environments - but the basic training at Predannack Airfield, on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula, is where it all starts.

The Second World War airfield is ideal for training as it is near RNAS Culdrose, close to the sea, and there is protected airspace.

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

When Puma drones land, they remove their wings.

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

"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."

It is hoped this technology will enhance future operations.

To date, more than 700 students have been trained in Cornwall.

Petty Officer Amanda Mancey, Training Course Manager, 700X Naval Air Squadron, said: "Before I joined the squadron, I had no remote pilot air system experience at all.

"I’m an aircraft controller, so I’m used to being at sea, being in the tower, all the UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] system is very new to me.

"It’s pretty much like playing the Xbox - once you get the hang of it then you just get it.

"[It] might take a couple of minutes to figure out what’s what, but once you get the hang of it, it’s like driving."

It is expected the Royal Navy drone team will deploy for the first time by the end of the year – a revolutionary moment for the service's operations.