With the aim of exploring the potential of unmanned aircraft systems at sea, The Royal Australian Navy has commissioned its first experimental squadron, as reported by Jessica Clifford of ABC Illawarra.
Unmanned aircraft have been around since the 1950s when towing aircraft were used in training exercises. Since 2012 the newer models of these aircraft have been equipped with a satellite and cameras to function similar to highly sophisticated drone.
The Navy is currently operating two systems, which squadron 822X will continue experimenting with. Lieutenant Commander Ben Crowther has been working with the Naval Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit (NUASU) for the past few years before the formal transition to 822X Squadron.
He gave it huge thumbs up for the huge learning curve it has been and also been successful in cost-effectiveness and the safety of personnel. He says, “I have a background in flying and I can tell you, it’s very different flying an aircraft from a computer in an air-conditioned box.” A group of sailors have been doing preliminary experimentation, gaining flight experience and learning how to launch the aircraft from ships while on deployment.
One of the types of aircraft being considered is the Schiebel Camcopter S-100, which can carry payloads such as electro-optics and infrared sensors. This $2 million piece of equipment can carry out of a number of functions attributed to conventional manned helicopters, is significantly cheaper since it replaces the crew that would cost $60 million and also means zero life risk.
The other is the Insitu ScanEagle, a small, long-endurance, low-altitude aircraft is a fixed-wing aircraft used for identifying friends or foes at sea with ScanEagles and Camcopters for surveillance, intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. The Navy intends to continue experimenting with unmanned aircraft systems for the next three to five years before purchasing more in 2022-23.
The squadron newly commissioned to operate the aircraft has recently been taken over by Commanding Officer Michael Rainey from Lieutenant Commander Crowther. “The purpose of the aircraft is to extend the eyes and ears of ships at sea,” Commanding Officer Rainey said.
“They have much greater endurance than our manned aircraft. The fixed-wing ScanEagle can stay airborne for 12 hours on 3 litres of fuel. The downside at the moment is they are not as reliable as our manned aircraft.” he added. Members will be deployed to work on the engineering aspects of the systems, and to understand the operational procedures of the aircraft on land and at sea. The 822X squadron is the first squadron to use the suffix X, to symbolise the experimental aspect of its role. There are eight unmanned aircraft operating in the Navy presently.
The new Australian Chief of Navy Michael Noonan commissioned the squadron at HMAS Albatross at Nowra this week.
“In the near future, unmanned systems will be deployed to every operational theatre,” Vice Admiral Noonan said, “Autonomous systems are growing in importance and 822X Squadron will realise the full potential that these technologies present.”