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A new technology could pave the way for semi-autonomous naval vessels with much smaller crews. Transferring naval command rooms that are currently always on-board vessels onto land could reduce the risks to sailors and improve safety during combat. This innovation has the potential to transform maritime warfare and greatly increase the situational awareness and efficiency of crews.

The UK Royal Navy ships could in future be controlled remotely by captains on land using new augmented reality headsets and artificial intelligence technologies.

This innovation, developed by British BAE Systems, is based on the concept that “the future Navy control room.. will not actually be on-board the ship. We think this will work because we know that you can have pilots in a Texas desert controlling drones that fly over Afghanistan. So why not have the officers somewhere safe, instead of on-board?,” asks Frank Cotton, BAE chief technology officer for naval systems.

It is likely to take time to be adopted, he evaluates, because it runs strongly against naval traditions which dictate that a ship’s captain needs to be on board but was already technically feasible.

Control rooms, or operations rooms, on warships are where all of the information that is continuously collected by the vessel’s equipment, including radar, sonar and cameras, is relayed to captains so that they can make tactical decisions.  

Unlike on-board control rooms where officers are usually seated, in case the ship is struck by an enemy munition that would knock them off their feet, in an on-land control room officers could be allowed to walk freely around the room.

The technology will have impact on naval warfare. The artificial intelligence developed for the new control rooms could spot incoming threats to a warship and instantly prioritize them, so that commanders know which enemy vessels to take out first.

The AR glasses will allow an Officer of the Watch, responsible for the ship’s safety, to work outside of the operations room and still be able to see tactical data and other vital information. It will also mean officers will be able to look through fog and mist on the sea to spot ships and planes that have already been spotted by the ship’s radar systems.  

BAE Systems is investing £20m into AR and AI technologies to develop future applications for warships. Augmented reality glasses will be trialed on the bridge of Royal Navy frigates, so it can be in use by officers by the end of next year.

The AR equipment that will be used during the trial will be Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets.