Royal Navy tests drones to help rescue sailors who fall overboard

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are used across the world for civilian, commercial, as well as military applications. Recently, Israel used an AI-guided combat drone swarm during the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Now, the British Royal Navy is testing the potential for heavy-lift Minerva drones to help rescue sailors who fall overboard.

For months, the NavyX team has been involved in a series of tests using the T-80 and T-150 Minerva drones to locate personnel in the water, drop life-saving equipment, and hover over the location until rescuers arrive. The concept has been extensively tested by Royal Navy technology experts both at the Royal Navy’s Diving School at Horsea Island, Portsmouth, and more recently on a civilian boat.

Royal Navy tests drones to help rescue sailors who fall overboard
It could locate prsonnel and drop life-saving equipment and hover over the location until rescuers arrive. Credit: Royal Navy

First, a Minerva T-150 drone was successful in locating a dummy in the water at Horsea Island, deploying a test package that could one day contain a life raft and hovering above the dummy to signpost their location. These ‘man overboard’ drills proved that the remotely-piloted systems can quickly and effectively find sailors when they fall, reducing the rescue time and providing the necessary equipment to save them from drowning.

The drones could also be equipped with thermal imaging cameras to make their job easier. The introduction of a drone means it could be used to fly out to where the person is and hover – making it easier for the ship and seaboat to identify the casualty’s location. The drop maneuver was based on lessons learned from resupply drone tests carried out by the Royal Marines in Norway and Cyprus last year. With its ability to drop objects, the drone could also deliver a lifebuoy and other survival equipment to Commandos in training.

For the second phase of testing, the smaller T-80 Minerva drone was used. The system was able to be controlled to take off the moving boat and fly out to sea before returning. Going one step further, the drone was programmed to land itself on a mat attached to the boat’s deck – meaning once it had taken off, it would use its onboard systems to track where it needed to land.

The concept has shown that it works, and the next step will be to refine and expand this operation so that it can actually be implemented on Royal Navy ships in the future.

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