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Canadian Navy Experiments with Unmanned Capabilities at Sea

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RCN Experimenting with Unmanned Capabilities at Sea

(Source: Royal Canadian Navy; issued Nov 28, 2016)


The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has been actively pursuing, on a modest and experimental basis, a number of remote technology capabilities in each of the three maritime domains: air, surface and sub-surface.

As technologies mature and evolve, the RCN is anticipating the gradual introduction of remotely piloted vehicles, or unmanned vehicles, in all three of these maritime dimensions. Unmanned vehicles will be well-suited for a range of tasks that will greatly extend a commander’s situational awareness and potentially contribute to the expansion of assigned areas of responsibility.

It is envisaged that unmanned systems will also comprise an essential component of a joint force’s constellation of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance, and potentially naval fire support assets, performing tasks in high-risk environments, delivering precision weapons and conducting post-attack battle damage assessment.

Unmanned systems have the potential to positively impact future maritime operations. They can increase both the survivability and lethality of our own forces by increasing detection, communications and engagement distances.

Historically, in terms of the undersea domain, the RCN has operated everything from side-scan sonars to remotely operated vehicles, and continues to actively participate in the development of these technologies. The RCN was also active in the 1990s developing remotely controlled surface targets, and those investments are now reaping real benefits for Canadian industry.

In recent years, the RCN has had great success operating the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle from deployed Halifax-class frigates, thanks to contracts put in place by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to support our forces in Afghanistan. Between 2012 and 2014, the combined intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability resident in the frigates, along with the embarked Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), allowed the RCN to play a prominent role in Operation ARTEMIS, the CAF’s participation in counterterrorism and maritime security operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Through cueing, detection, surveillance and reporting from the shipborne Scan Eagle UAS, over nine metric tons of illegal drugs were intercepted by Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Charlottetown, Toronto and Regina during the mission. It proved to be an incredibly versatile and important extension of the ship’s sensors and embarked aircraft.

It also allowed the RCN to learn valuable lessons on how to employ this capability, how to integrate it into the maritime and littoral battle space, and how to operate in conjunction with an embarked maritime helicopter. It is a great force multiplier for a single ship or for a naval task group.

Under the leadership of the RCN, the Director of Naval Requirements (DNR) is today embarking on several project initiatives. They will see the delivery of a complementary

warfighting capability to ships at sea by having a level of autonomy between maritime unmanned systems, persistence and expendability, in order to enhance ships’ survivability, along with generating a strategically relevant tactical advantage for commanders at sea across the full spectrum of operations.
UAV capability demonstration

On the international scene, in October 2016 the RCN observed Exercise UNMANNED WARRIOR 2016, which was conducted on the Isle of Benbecula, Scotland under the leadership of the Royal Navy (RN). This was a large-scale demonstration of maritime autonomous systems in a tactically representative environment, including unmanned air, surface, sub-surface vehicles and sensors.

In line with the United Kingdom Strategic Defence and Security Review direction on innovation and defence exports, the RN invited industry, academia and certain defence partners, including the U.S. Navy, to safely experiment and demonstrate the potential offered by maritime autonomous systems in order to explore the feasibility and maturity of autonomous systems in delivering maritime capability.

More recently, on October 25, 2016, in partnership with MDA System Ltd and AeroVironment Inc., DNR conducted a capability demonstration aboard HMCS Summerside where the AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma UAV was evaluated. Despite less than favorable weather conditions, the demonstration was a great success and the team was able to demonstrate the launch and recovery from a Kingston-class ship, the quick re-deployment of the UAV, and electro-optical and infrared imagery beyond the visual horizon, all while maintaining the covertness of the aircraft. By conducting this demonstration in a real maritime environment, it better informed the RCN of the benefits and potential application of this relatively new technology for future missions.
Current unmanned initiatives

The Remote Mine Hunting and Disposal System will be a modular, stand-off naval mine countermeasures capability, designed to provide the full spectrum of naval mine hunting operations and contribute to underwater domain awareness. A preliminary cost estimate is between $20 million and $40 million.

The RCN ISTAR UAS will be a shipborne, complementary, persistent, near-real time, over the horizon, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability that will enhance self-defence for deployed HMC Ships, along with generating a strategically relevant tactical advantage for commanders at sea across the full spectrum of operations. A preliminary estimate is between $100 million and $249 million.

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