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The UK Royal Navy has tested an unmanned speedboat on the River Thames ahead of the Unmanned Warrior exercise, which takes place off west Wales, north-west Scotland and the Western Isle this autumn.

Although it is capable of navigating and avoiding collisions autonomously a human professional was on board to take control if needed, as part of regulations, which also limit the speeds at which it can travel.

Mast (Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed) is being developed with research funding from the Ministry of Defence’s science and technology laboratory, to explore how well such vessels function autonomously.

It is expected to eventually play a role in surveillance and reconnaissance. Nick Giles, a marine analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a military thinktank:  “In some senses the maritime environment is playing catch-up when it comes to unmanned technologies but the potential is very significant”.

According to the Plymouth Herrald, Mast and more than 40 other drone systems will take part in what the navy describes as the biggest effort to test such systems in an operational environment.

Unmanned Warrior is organised in collaboration with industry and allied forces, including the US Navy. The exercise aims to showcase new technologies.

Admiral Sir Philip Jones, first sea lord and chief of the naval staff, said: “The growing scale of Unmanned Warrior is a clear demonstration of the Royal Navy’s ambition to lead and win through technological innovation.

“Unmanned maritime systems will change how we operate, but they’re just the start.”

Peter Roberts, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said: “The initiative lagged years behind similar efforts such as a project by the US Navy, named Thunderstorm.

The US invited manufacturers of unmanned technology to real-world operations against drug smugglers in the Caribbean. They wanted to get value for taxpayer money, so they made the technology companies do this somewhere there was a problem they could potentially solve, rather than testing them in a nice clean environment. They had to prove their equipment worked outside of clean conditions”, he said.