The Royal Navy gets its first unmanned minesweeping system
The ATLAS Remote Combined Influence Minesweeping System (ARCIMS), which provides an autonomous minesweeping capability was handed over to the Royal Navy this week.
Following a period of successful trials off the Dorset coast, 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 under a £13 million contract, working with DE&S and the RN’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials Team (MASTT).
The USV is controlled from ashore and features a “sense and avoid” capability to other vessels and surface obstacles. The USV tows three or more Coil Auxiliary Boats (CABs) which emit electronic signals to detonate mines. Traditional minesweepers literally ‘swept’ mines used towed cables to cut the lines that tethered them to the seabed. Modern ‘minesweeping’ is done with towed bodies that simulate the acoustic or magnetic signatures of ships in order to trigger the mine or confirm no mines are present. This is an inherently more risky method of dealing with mines than the RN’s primary method of minehunting with sonar and UUVs, and is well suited for unmanned systems.
Delivery of the first ARCIMS a major milestone in the Navy’s transition to autonomous offboard systems to counter the threat posed to international shipping by the sea mine and is another step on the road to reducing the risk to personnel and the requirement for a ship to enter the suspected minefield. The system will now undergo a series of more expansive trials with the RN. The contract, signed in 2015, will see the RN receive a total of 4 USVs from AEUK, the first of which was used in these trails and is named RNMB Hussar. The RN already owns a manned version called RNMB Hazard used for other trials purposes.
The complimentary mine-hunting system is being developed jointly with France, the USV will deploy UUVs and sonars to find and destroy mines, with work starting on the project in 2019. The first Hunt class minesweeper is supposed to be being modified to carry and deploy 2 of the new USVs, although the exact timing is unclear.
ARCIMS will form part of the RN’s Mine countermeasures and Hydrographic capability (MHC) project. The autonomous system can be deployed from a “mothership”, but the precise form that will take is still far from decided. Potentially the mission bays of the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates could be utilised, along with auxiliaries or amphibious vessels. Whether the RN will ever again build dedicated minehunters is questionable. A hybrid OPV / minehunter concept like the Venari-85 is an intriguing possibility.
It is good to see the RN taking a lead in this area of innovation and AEUK are already reporting potential overseas interest. AE has a German parent company but this project has sustained around 20 jobs and created 15 new jobs with at their factory in Dorset. In August 2017 it was announced AEUK also won the contract to supply 48 new workboats to the RN, including inshore survey vessel HMS Magpie. Boat builder Safehaven Marine have constructed Magpie at their site in Cork, Ireland but she will be fitted out by AEUK at their facility in Portland Harbour.
It should be noted that, despite the headline taken from an MoD press release, the RN has been using unmanned systems for mine-hunting for many years. The Sea Fox and REMUS-600 currently in service are unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). ARCIMS is a USV system but the RN obtained the Shallow Water Influence Mine-sweeping System (SWIMS ) USV as far back as 2003 for clearing mines in Iraqi waters. SWIMS used a remotely-controlled modified Combat Support Boat (CSB) to tow minesweeping equipment and was a forerunner of today’s system. SWIMS was purchased under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) and did not remain in RN service after operation Telic.