Tourists crossing London's historic Tower Bridge on Monday caught a glimpse not just of the past, but of the future. As traffic halted, the bridge raised long enough for a sleek grey dart to zip past: a prototype unmanned craft that will test the technology of drone boats.
We've all heard of military drones in the sky. Unmanned aerial vehicles are pilotless, remote-controlled drone aircraft launching missiles from 30,000 feet (about 9,144 meters) up. Unmanned vehicles are the future of warfare, many say, and not just in the air. Britain's Royal Navy is studying unmanned waterborne craft, and this week unveiled one such vessel with a jaunt along the river Thames.
The 32-foot (9-meter) vessel, based on the high-speed Bladerunner hull that lifts a boat partway out of the water for a more efficient ride, looks like a regular speedboat painted the grey of a drizzly British sky. It's called the Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (MAST), so named because it will be used as platform to test kit that could go into future drone craft.
"It's actually easier to make unmanned surface vessels than it is to fly them in the air," one Royal Navy officer said as we watched MAST turn nimble circles on the Thames. "You don't have to land the thing."
MAST isn't intended to carry weapons and won't see action in its current form, but it will be loaded up with kit to learn about how unmanned craft could work. The Navy intends to look at questions such as how drones can be kept steady at speed and dodge other ships, and how the data they collect can be processed so personnel can make effective decisions based on the drone's intelligence.
Representatives of the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence declined to give technical details of the kit aboard. They did say the craft is meant to be filled with equipment including radar, GPS and other information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) technology.
On this occasion, MAST was crewed by two people to comply with local regulations. But the vessel is intended to be unmanned as it heads out to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions, whether under remote control or under its own autonomous course. For example, a drone craft can be sent out in front of the fleet as an advance scout, or dispatched to shadow a suspect vessel at a pre-programmed distance. Other possible roles include mine sweeping or submarine hunting. The Royal Navy would not reveal MAST's maximum speed.
The Unmanned Warrior programme takes in airborne drones as well as surface vessels like the MAST system, and submersible vessels. A major exercise testing those various vehicles will take place off the coast of Scotland and Wales in October.