The XV Patrick Blackett arrived in Portsmouth today. She has been bought for use by the NavyX programme as a platform for trials and experimentation with new technologies. Here we look at this vessel in detail.
The research, development and experimentation work of the RN’s Develop Directorate has now been streamlined under the NavyX brand with a single multi-disciplinary team aiming to introduce novel and innovative capabilities to the fleet. Run by a Colonel Royal Marines, who works directly to the RN’s Director Develop, Rear Admiral James Parkin, NavyX philosophy is to work collaboratively, differently, and at pace.
From start to finish the experimental vessel procurement has been completed in less than a year for a total cost of just £7m. The project was launched in August 2021 and a tender was issued in December specifying a vessel that must already have been built, although not having had a previous owner. It would displace a maximum of 500 tonnes, be less than 48m in length and capable of 20 knots. A large working deck at the stern with space for at least two TEU containers was also needed. The requirement for an existing vessel meant there were very limited suppliers able to meet this specification and a Damen Fast Crew Supplier (FCS) Vessel was obviously the likely solution.
In January 2022 a Damen-built FCS 4008 was down-selected and the contract was signed the following month. Ownership was transferred to the RN in March and work to adapt the vessel at Damen’s covered shipyard facility located at Gorinchem in the Netherlands was started in April.
XV Patrick Blackett has been procured as a dedicated trials platform that will avoid the need to place excess demands on the busy operational fleet. She has core crew of 5 RN personnel but has sleeping accommodation for up to 12. She is certified to carry a further 12 technicians and engineers when day running on trials work. Her first commanding officer will be Cdr Samuel Nightingale, a warfare specialist on assignment to NavyX.
The XV is named after Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett (1897-1974) a renowned experimental physicist awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1948 and president of the Royal Society (1965). He joined the RN in 1910 and saw active service in the First World War, serving on the cruiser HMS Carnarvon during the Battle of the Falklands (1914) and later on the battleship HMS Barham at the Battle of Jutland (1916). During The Second World War he worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment developing technology that helped defeat the U-boats. He later became Director of Naval Operational Research and argued correctly from analysis of data that resources devoted to area bombing of Germany were not proportional to its effectiveness. Until now, Blackett was widely honoured by academia as one of the greatest British scientists of the 20th century but his importance to naval history was rather overlooked. The XV now fully recognises his contribution and is a fitting name for a vessel to be used for cutting-edge naval research.
The XV is intended to have a distinctive appearance, she is not painted pussers grey, but matt back, carrying a large NavyX logo, and the pennant number X01 highlighted in gloss. She will not be a commissioned vessel but will serve under the Blue Ensign, being an unarmed, government-owned vessel simplifies her operation and the way she could be employed.
A large QR code will be painted on each side of the superstructure to give smartphone users a link to a website of NavyX’s choice. An excellent way to promote public engagement and provide a timely explanation of the work being undertaken. She will attend both RN and NATO exercises around the UK and abroad and is a flexible platform that will provide a broad range of experimentation options for NavyX and wider industry.
The Damen FCS 4800 series are primarily designed to transport up to 90 personnel and cargo to and from offshore oil and gas installations. The unique axe-bow hull design developed by Damen enables the vessel to slice through the waves with reduced resistance. Less forward buoyancy and a long, tapered hull help the vessel pierce waves more than ride over them, reducing slamming and pitching motions. This allows higher speeds, has a lower impact on the hull, provides a smoother ride for passengers and has better fuel economy. Around 150 axe-bow vessels are in service around the world, mostly in support of offshore industry but several navies and coastguards operate OPV or maritime security variants. This hull form is not suited to wider warship applications due to the narrow focsle and the need to keep weight aft.
The main modification to meet the XV specification was to convert the seating area for 90 passengers into spaces for use by the trials team including a briefing room, office and workshop. Minor changes were also made to communications and bridge equipment to meet RN requirements. The large wooden working deck aft has a capacity of up to 100 tonnes, securing points for two TEU containers together with electrical power and cooling water supplies. The knuckle-boom crane can be used to embark stores up to around 4 tonnes or deploy small craft over the side.
XV Patrick Blackett is officially capable of up to 20 knots although probably can achieve significantly faster speeds. She has a substantial range of 3,300 nm at 20 knots and is driven by 4 diesel engines driving 4 fixed-pitch propellers through 4 individual gearboxes. Two 99.0 kW generators provide electrical power to the ship and a 120kw hydraulically-driven bow thruster allows her to berth and unberth unaided. She is equipped with 9,000 sensors which can transmit data ashore to support predictive maintenance, real-time analytics and remote engineering support.
The vessel is air-conditioned and fitted with modern accommodation for 12 people in four 2-berth cabins and one 4-berth cabin. She is 41.2m meters in length, has a beam of 8.75m, draws 3.05m and has a gross registered tonnage (internal volume) of 270 tonnes. The XV itself is not currently capable of autonomous or remote operation but has fully digital control systems that would allow this capability to be added in future, should the RN want to begin experiments with large-platform maritime autonomy.
The XV has been delivered from the Netherlands by a crew provided by her builders. There will be a hiatus of a few months while the ship is formally accepted (including safety certification, acceptance onto the Defence Shipping Register etc) and her ship’s company undergo a period of training, learning how to operate a vessel unique to the RN. Once set to work, the Patrick Blackett will be host to a variety of experiments with novel technologies and concepts. Navy X already has a series of projects in development that will potentially include the deployment of Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) – uncrewed underwater, surface and airborne vehicles (UUV, USV and UAVs). She will also trial new sensors and AI decision-making software and be a platform for further development of modularity and the Navy PODS concept.
The requirement for an existing vessel meant there were very limited suppliers able to meet this specification and in the end only the Dutch shipyard Damen tendered a bid into the competition. Although not comparable with a complex weapon or major warship procurement, this accelerator project is a good example of setting sensible goals and getting things done. This needs to be followed up with a focus on ensuring that the results of trials carried out on board XV Patrick Blackett are developed into viable capabilities that are quickly placed in the hands of the operators on the frontline.
(Main photo: Arjan Buurveld)