The Royal Navy is moving closer to operating crewless helicopters.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has awarded a £60m contract to aerospace defence firm Leonardo to deliver a prototype of a crewless helicopter by 2025.
The three-tonne cutting-edge aircraft could be a gamechanger in the tracking of enemy submarines.
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The demonstrator helicopter will have the capacity to drop 'sonobuoys' – small tube-shaped buoys that track and communicate submarine activity – and if a submarine is detected, then a crewed helicopter will be alerted.
Less than a third of the weight of a Merlin helicopter – the prototype will be ready to undergo trials and testing on anti-submarine warfare patrols in 2025.
Drone helicopters would be cost-effective to run because of the savings on fuel, and could also reduce the exposure of Navy crews to potential threats.
Their operations could also be more efficient, as crews would not need to swap due to fatigue and their time could be spent on other critical tasks.
Other uses of the helicopter could also include casualty rescue and delivering supplies to ships.
Leonardo – the firm behind the Wildcat and Merlins which are the mainstay of Fleet Air Arm operations – will test the demonstrator on lengthy and demanding anti-submarine warfare patrols – currently performed by Merlin Mk2 helicopters.
The Royal Navy's Director Develop, Rear Admiral James Parkin, said: "Proving the benefits of larger uncrewed aircraft, rotary and fixed wing, will be key to understanding whether such aircraft can effectively contribute to future Royal Navy capabilities, particularly for anti-submarine warfare."
The crewless helicopter project has been dubbed Proteus after the mythical Greek god and is part of the existing UK Defence Rotary Strategy, set to improve and upgrade the Navy's technological capabilities.
Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin said: "Exploring cutting-edge, new defence capabilities through programmes with key British manufacturers, will help to ensure our Armed Forces are equipped to deal with the latest threats."