The Royal Navy’s new experimental trials vessel was formally named at a ceremony in Portsmouth on 29th July. In a follow-up to our previous article, we went onboard for a closer look and spoke with her Commanding Officer and head of NavyX.
Despite being a modest size trials platform, the RN put on quite a show for the naming ceremony – attended by the First Lord and various dignitaries including the granddaughter of Patrick Blackett who officially named the vessel. The RN is keen to show off the XV and its potential to industry, academia, SMEs, inventors and partner navies who may be invited to participate in future development work onboard.
In keeping with the theme of innovation, a Boston Dynamics Spot robot ‘dog’ was used to pull the rope to release the champagne bottle against to bow. The robot performed as expected but unfortunately, the bottle failed to break when it struck the bow… The procedure had worked fine in rehearsal but this kind of teething problem is perhaps in keeping with fast to fail iterative experimental development philosophy of NavyX.
Once NavyX had decided they needed their own trials platform, various ownership models were considered including chartering a commercial ship. The conclusion was that in the long term it is far more flexible and cheaper for the RN to own and crew the vessel themselves. The MoD Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO) Project Team was commissioned to identify suitable vessels. About 9 possible options were available worldwide but the Damen 4008 was selected primarily because it was brand new and has a generous size working deck. The XV was described by Admiral Parkin as “sitting in the sweet spot between small/fast while being a platform large enough to put 4 containers on the back”. The axe-bow design was not a specific requirement but the performance of this hull design will be studied with interest.
Instead of furloughing staff, Damen continued to construct vessels throughout the pandemic even without specific orders, confident that they would find customers. The XV is the first Damen product sold directly to the RN, although they have built many of the naval bases harbour tugs and support vessels operated by Serco. The purchase price for the vessel itself was £6.5M plus there is a 4-year support and maintenance contract with Damen.
The ship’s company have completed a 6-week training course with Damen that went beyond just operating the ship and included gaining a deeper understanding of the systems on board so they are qualified to train future users. Coinciding with the summer leave period, the XV will now be alongside for sometime. There is documentation that has to be submitted to the Defence Maritime Regulator to prove the RN has safe operating procedures. Once the regulatory frameworks for this unique vessel are in place there will be a period of proving the ship before experimentation work begins as the crew get to grips with the routines for sailing her.
The XV itself will provide valuable lessons for the RN as a vessel with very different technology from typical warships. The level of automation on board is already very high and provides useful insight into leading-edge commercial practice and a stepping stone on the way toward fully autonomous ships. The data from sensors on board, the platform management system (PMS) navigational aids, GPS etc are all fed onto a server onboard which allows for analysis and would make it technically relatively straightforward for the XV itself to be operated autonomously or remotely. The technology for uncrewed vehicles is increasingly mature but the regulations lag behind. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is not expected to produce a definitive standard for uncrewed vessels for another 5 years at least. With the investment in the XV, the RN sees an opportunity to become the leading navy in autonomous systems, in Europe at least.
The low-key PODs (Persistent Operational Deployment Systems) concept has continued to progress since it was announced last year. The RN understands the need for more rapid capability upgrades and interchangeability rather than being constrained by the features of warships designed several decades ago. PODs is a funded programme that has gone through concept and assessment and is now in the design phase. Each POD is intended to have common power and data interfaces with an open digital architecture that allows the host platform to interface with whatever the POD contains automatically. Support for PODs will be embedded from the outset in the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates and their capabilities are likely to be developed further in the Type 32 frigate design.
There will be many applications but an early user requirement is a system for launching small UAVs that avoids restricting operations from the main flight deck. NavyX now has 7 prototype PODs on contract for delivery and the XV will be heavily utilised in their evaluation.
In his speech at the naming ceremony, Rear Admiral Parkin highlighted the number of experimental vessels associated with RN innovation. These include HMS Rattler (1843), the first warship fitted with a screw propellor, HMS Warrior (1861), the first iron-hulled warship, HMS Viper (1900) the first warship fitted with steam turbines. Multiple battleship and aircraft carrier innovations in the 20th century and more recently, HMS Matapan (1973) converted as a sonar trails ship and RV Trition (2000) an experimental trimaran hull form. The XV is a signal the RN has returned to taking innovation seriously again.