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UAS makes first landing and take-off on Royal Navy carrier at sea

A pilotless plane has flown on and off a Royal Navy aircraft carrier for the first time. The W Autonomous Systems (WAS) Unmanned Air vehicle (UAV) flew from the Lizard Peninsula and on to the flight deck of the carrier HMS Prince of Wales off the Cornish coast, delivered supplies, then flew back in a milestone flight which points the way to the future of naval aviation. This Royal Navy first comes 60 years after the first landing and take-off by a VSTOL aircraft, the Hawker P.1127, on HMAS Ark Royal in the English Channel in 1963.

Southampton-based W Autonomous Systems is developing long-range, heavy-lift autonomous UASs for defence purposes. After attaining endorsements and authorisations from the Civil Aviation Authority, the company’s HCMC drone took off from Predannack, the satellite airfield of RNAS Culdrose, and after a flight of about 20 minutes, touched down safely on the HMS Prince of Wales’ flight deck.

The HCMC twin-engine light alloy twin-boom aircraft is capable of carrying a payload of 100kg up to 1,000 kilometres. Crucially it can land on uneven ground and needs only a 150m runway – a little over half the length of the flight decks on the UK’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

The UAS landing and take-off is a vital step along the way to operating crewless aircraft safely alongside F-35 Lightning jets and naval Merlin and Wildcat helicopters which are currently the backbone of the RN’s Fleet Air Arm. The goal is to deploy drones with a UK Carrier Strike Group in the future, using them to transfer stores and supplies such as mail or spare parts between ships, without the need to launch helicopters.

“HMS Prince of Wales is a fifth-generation aircraft carrier and operating autonomous drones like this will become the norm across future Royal Navy Carrier Strike Groups in our 50-year lifespan,” said CAPT Richard Hewitt, CO of HMS Prince of Wales. “We are all proud here in HMS Prince of Wales to achieve this – a fantastic milestone for all involved and the first of many firsts on this deployment to shape the future of Royal Naval Carrier Strike innovation as we prepare for our strike group deployment in 2025.”

“Landing on a moving naval carrier was the ultimate test and our autonomous heavy-lift HCMC drone passed with flying colours,” said Charles Scales, Co-Founder of W Autonomous Systems. “The trials off Cornwall were the first stage of an autumn programme pushing the boundaries of naval aviation for Britain’s biggest warship.

Drones are cheaper to operate, eliminate any potential risk to aircrew, such as in bad weather, and keep the hi-tech Merlins and Wildcats free for operational sorties, such as hunting hostile submarines or surface vessels which are threats to the carrier strike group.

HMS Prince of Wales has experimented with drone technology before, notably small quadcopters and Banshee robotic targets. But the trials off the Lizard are in a different league, involving a much larger, more capable autonomous aircraft aircraft with a 10m wingspan.

HMS Prince of Wales will be operating off the Eastern Seaboard of the USA until Christmas as she conducts experiments with F-35 Lightning stealth fighters, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, and the Mojave drone.

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