In a pioneering flight on 4th September, a cargo drone flew from Cornwall out to HMS Prince of Wales, delivered supplies, took off again and returned to the airfield.
After preparations which included authorisation from the Civil Aviation Authority, the HCMC drone took off from Predannack, the satellite airfield of RNAS Culdrose. After a flight lasting around 20 minutes, it touched down safely on the moving carrier. A dummy payload of naval memorabilia was brought to the carrier by the aircraft and removed by the crew. For the return journey, an aviation fuel sample was loaded to be tested using facilities ashore. The trial is best understood by watching the video below. (Unfortunately, a bug landed on the tail camera lens just before landing:)
The twin-engine aluminium alloy twin-boom HCMC UAS used in the trial is made by W Autonomous Systems (WAS) based in Southampton. With a 10m wingspan, it is uniquely capable of carrying a payload of 100kg up to 1,000 km. It is not remotely piloted and has a fully automated flight system. Designed with a ‘zero single point of failure’ philosophy, this ensures that most risk is eliminated including in the avionics, communications and ground control systems. As a STOL platform, it can operate from rough airstrips and needs about 150m to get airborne, less than half the length of the carrier’s flight deck.
Small quadcopters and Banshee/Vampire UAVs have previously been tested on board HMS Prince of Wales but this was the first time a UAS landed and took off from the ship. (The Banshee jets are launched from mobile catapults and descend by parachute to be recovered from the water after sorties are complete.)
The RN’s intention is to utilise this type of heavy lift UAS to transfer stores and supplies such as mail or spare parts from ashore. This could provide a very low-cost lightweight military intra-theatre lift (MITL) capability, reducing flying hours for expensive and high-value helicopters. Although relatively low-key and not a direct increase in combat power, this kind of logistic support is vital to naval operations and by releasing precious helicopters for other work, can act as a force multiplier. Expect to see a variety of fixed and rotary-wing UAV types being tested on the aircraft carriers in the next few years
The trials off Cornwall were the first stage of an autumn programme for the carrier using the crawl, walk, run approach. Building up from this relatively simple evolution, the ship is now on her way across the Atlantic to the east coast of the US where she will conduct more demanding flying trials with F-35, Mojave RPAS and V-22 Osprey.