Royal Navy launches drone from aircraft carrier for first time

The Royal Navy has launched a drone from an aircraft carrier for the first time in a move towards automation.

The drones were catapulted off HMS Prince of Wales, Britain’s newest aircraft carrier.

The fixed-wing aircraft called the QinetiQ Banshee Jet 80+ flew from the carrier’s flight deck and will be used to test future sensors, weapons and radio equipment.

The Banshee flights represent the first step for the Royal Navy in exploring how crewless technology can be operated from the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in the future.

Commander Rob Taylor, the Ministry of Defence’s lead for Royal Navy air test and evaluation, said: “There is a real need for a low-cost drone such as the Banshee that can replicate a range of the threats in the skies and provide a test bed for future payloads.”

A fixed-wing drone being launched from the HMS Prince of Wales

Credit: Ben Corbett/Royal Navy/Crown Copyright/PA Wire

A fixed-wing Banshee drone on the HMS Prince of Wales, with a F-35B Lightning in the background

Credit: JJ Massey
/Royal Navy

The jet-powered Banshee can fly from wave-top height to 25,000ft at speeds up to 460mph. As such, it is hard to detect on radar, making it a realistic adversary for sailors to train in countering aerial threats.

“The key to this is that a warship can carry this drone with it on operations, launch it and use it to keep personnel razor-sharp in countering threats from above,” Cdr Taylor said. “The ability to adapt the payload for differing tasks is also crucial to provide value for money and interoperability across the fleet.”

Military forces are increasingly developing uncrewed systems as a means of extending mission endurance and reducing risk to service personnel.

Drones will be used to conduct tasks such as aerial reconnaissance and communications, as well as carrying weapons.

Most drones will operate on their own, but some will be deployed as so-called “loyal wingmen” and controlled from the air by another aircraft with a pilot in command.

Royal Navy eyes ‘catapult system’ to launch drones and jets from aircraft carriers

The MoD is exploring the concept of “drone swarms” to overload enemy defences. The RAF has established 216 Squadron as the lead unit for drone technology.

The Banshee flew from the carrier and was recovered on land by parachute. The trial, part of the Royal Navy’s Project Vampire – looking at lightweight, carrier-borne drones – seeks eventually to land autonomous aircraft back on the ship from which they launched.

“The programme will look at rotary wing and fixed wing drones to fulfil a number of tasks to increase mass on the carriers and allow crewed aircraft to maximise their capacity,” Cdr Taylor said.

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