British flagship HMS Albion is the first Royal Navy warship to deploy with a Fleet Air Arm drone flight to support operations.
The lightweight Puma is undergoing its first operational testing on Albion’s autumn deployment to the Mediterranean as its operators from 700X Naval Air Squadron’s Phantom Flight – normally based at Culdrose in Cornwall – develop new tactics and work out how it, and other unmanned aerial systems can be used side-by-side with other Royal Navy vessels and equipment.
Just over 4½ft long, with a wingspan of 9ft and weighing as much as six bags of sugar, Puma flies for up to two hours potentially monitoring an area of up to 270 square miles of ocean – that’s larger than the size of Greater Manchester.
Given its size and weight, the small drone can be launched from Albion’s sprawling flight deck, or from the open decks of her much smaller landing craft. It requires just three sailors: a vehicle operator to control the camera in flight, a mission operator to pilot/navigate the Puma and a Flight Commander who integrates the drone with the ship and other aircraft in the area.
“One of the reasons that I joined the Navy was to work with cutting-edge technology and straight after my specialist training I was lucky enough to get a draft with the RAF’s 617 Squadron working with the F-35 stealth fighters,” said Able Seaman Tom Halton.
“I’d always wanted to work with unmanned air systems and when I heard there was a position at 700X I didn’t hesitate to show my interest and I’m now part of the Royal Navy’s first deployable unmanned squadron.”
Puma provides the operations team with extra ‘eyes in the sky’, feeding back a live image in various weather/environmental conditions allowing commanders to make quick and accurate decisions.
With a top speed of over 50mph it can keep up with and track fast inshore attack craft threatening Albion or her task group, or ‘go-fasts’ used by drug-runners to traffic illegal narcotics, providing high resolution images and video for intelligence purposes, and provide oversight of Royal Marines as they are carry out raids.
As well as the work being carried out by 700X, Puma is being tested by the Future Commando Force teams from 42 Commando as they develop their ability to target enemy defences close to shore.
The three months on Albion and the numerous exercises the flagship is conducting gives Phantom Flight an unprecedented chance to push the potential of Puma.
“It is a brilliant opportunity for Phantom Flight to develop its tactics on a multi-platform, international deployment,” explained Flight Commander Lieutenant Ash Loftus, normally a Royal Navy air traffic controller.
“We aim to prove the utility of remotely-piloted aerial systems in the maritime battlespace and pave the way for their support to the future Fleet.”
Experimentation is at the heart of Albion’s deployment. Before the task group returns to the South West in December, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines will test new ideas, kit and tactics. 700X will soon be put to the test alongside a host of crewless systems on Exercise Autonomous Advanced Force 3.0.