Latest update shows UK drones spreading across air, land and sea

We’ve updated our directory of current UK aerial drones and drone development programmes and wanted to highlight that, while drones have been mainly the preserve of the Air Force, they are now increasingly being acquired and used by the British Army and the Royal Navy.  Meanwhile, although the MoD is keen to point to the imminent arrival of its new armed drone, which they have dubbed ‘The Protector’, problems lie ahead.

Protector problems ahead

The replacement for the UK’s Reaper drone – dubbed ‘the Protector’ by the UK but called SkyGuardian by the manufacturer (and everyone else really) –  is supposed to be in service by mid-2024.  While the first aircraft from the production line has been delivered to the RAF it remains in the US for on-going testing and training.  However, two significant problems need to be addressed over the next 18 months before these drones become operational.

Firstly, recruitment and retention of personnel to operate the drones has been an on-going problem as Sir Stephen Lovegrove, then MoD permanent secretary, told the Commons public accounts committee in 2020.  This is likely to be even more so now as crews will be based permanently in Lincoln rather than having the option of being deployed to the sunnier climes of Las Vegas, after the UK shut down its US-based drone operations.

General Atomics promotional graphic visualising Protector flying over London

The RAF partly overcame recruitment issues by drafting in Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilots.  As the RAAF  was set to purchase SkyGuardian drones it made sense to the RAAF to send pilots to operate UK armed drones as they would then get training and experience of using these systems before their drones arrived in Australia.  However in April 2022, Australia abruptly cancelled its planned purchase of SkyGuardian drones due to budget problems following the setting up of AUKUS alliance and the plan to build new nuclear submarines.  Given this, it seems likely the RAAF will not be so keen to provide personnel for the UK’s drone programme for much longer.

Secondly, and perhaps even more of a problem facing the MoD is persuading the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the public that it is safe for large armed drones to fly unsegregated in UK airspace.  Reaper was never authorised to fly in UK airspace but SkyGuardian/Protector has been built to standards that will – in theory – allow it to be certified to fly unsegregated in UK air space.

An initial application to the CAA to change airspace rules to allow to Protector to fly was rejected by the CAA in January 2022 and the MoD seem to have been scrambling on this issue ever since.  A public consultation on planned changes to airspace rules to allow the drones to fly from Waddington has seen significant opposition from locals.  This is perhaps because the MoD announced that it would be opening a training school at the base for non-UK pilots to train to operate these large drones.  Given the base is in the midst of a busy community with houses and a school adjacent, locals are not too pleased, with many suggesting in the consultation that the drones should be based somewhere more remote.

All in all, despite continued optimism from the MoD on this, it may well be that these drones are not in service by the predicted date.

British Army gains plethora of drones but not a swarm

While Protector, Reaper and other large drones are operated by the air force, the British Army have been busily acquiring an increasing number of small drones.

In our update we’ve added details of the Stalker and Indago 4 drones – purchased from Lockheed Martin; the media beloved Ghost drone  which has been trialled and used in exercises and may be in-service with the Royal Marines ((it seems hard to open a colour supplement without in-depth spread on the drone it and its ‘maverick’ designer); and not one, but two, new types of drones acquired from Israeli company Elbit Systems: Thor and Magni-X.

MoD has purchased 100 of these Stalker drones

However, while the MoD insists that it is making significant progress in developing drone swarming capability – and while we are now seeing the term ‘drone swarm’ being used regularly by the media – care needs to be taken here.  Although we are beginning to see small and medium size drones being deployed together in a group, that is not a ‘swarm’.   As drone expert, David Hambling makes clear in his helpful summary of the issue, “true swarm behaviour arises from a simple set of rules which each of the participating members follows, with no central controller.”

So,  although we are seeing individuals controlling multiple drones, or a number of individual drones being guided to one location by GPS, that is not a drone swarm (which requires autonomous capability in each drone)  as understood by scientists and engineers. While some military manufacturers and military PR departments claim they are testing or even deploying ‘drone swarms’, it tends to mean in fact that they are testing operating a group of drones, rather than a true ‘drone swarm’.

Maritime drones no longer all at sea

Drone Wars has historically concentrated on aerial drones but it hard not to notice the increasing development and use of uncrewed boats and underwater drones recently, with the UK placing a £15m contract for its first XLUUV (Extra Large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicle) – or submarine to me and you.  While many of these drones are being developed for reconnaissance purposes, the Royal Navy has worked with the US to trial missile launches from these drone boats. Developments in this area will be the subject of a forthcoming briefing.

At the same time, the Royal Navy and Marines are also pressing ahead with developing a number of aerial drones to be used in the maritime context. In our update we have covered Project Vampire and Project Vixen, which are aiming to develop or acquire drones that can take-off and land from ships, while the MoD awarded Leonardo a £60m contract in July 2022 to develop an uncrewed helicopter to be used for anti-submarine warfare – no doubt similar to the US Fire Scout drone.

Leonardo is building an uncrewed helicopter for the Royal Navy

Elsewhere the MoD are funding the development of a ‘heavy lift’ drone billed as being able to supply ships at sea from land and other support ships but also, according to press reports, able to fire missiles.

More details of increasing number of UK drones and drone development programmes here.


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