Royal Navy Tests Drone Operations On Aircraft Carrier HMS Prince of Wales

Royal Navy drone
W Autonomous Systems drone on short final for landing on HMS Prince of Wales. (Royal Navy)

Royal Navy tests pilotless aircraft flown on and off of aircraft carrier for first time.

On Sept. 8, 2023, the Royal Navy announced that an autonomous aircraft had successfully operated from its aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales for the first time. The drone in question is a STOL aircraft with a payload capacity of 100kg and a range of up to 1000km developed by W Autonomous Systems. While previous attempts have been made on the same ship to launch QinetiQ Banshee target drones back in September 2021, this occasion marked the first instance where an autonomous platform took off and landed from the British carrier.

The 10m wingspan drone flew from the Predannack RNAS Culdrose to the carrier out on the Cornish coast and back, delivering supplies to the ship. The twin-engine drone is capable of landing on a mere 150m of runway, which is roughly half of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier’s flight deck.

Whilst the US Navy have been conducting carrier borne UAVs such as the X-47B for a long time, the unique design of the British Queen Elizabeth class carriers pose a different set of requirements. First introduced in service in 2014, the British carrier fleet consists of two carriers: HMS Queen Elizabeth I (R08) and HMS Prince of Wales (R09).

W Autonomous Systems drone on deck of HMS Prince of Wales (Photo: Royal Navy)

Unlike the Catapult-Assisted Take-off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) design of US carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers utilise a Short Take-off Vertical Landing (STOVL) design. Thus, instead of a catapult at the bow of the ship, a 12.5° / 60m ramp (often referred to as a ski jump) is present. This, in combination with the lack of arresting wires at the stern of the ship mean that aircraft with STOVL capabilities such as the F-35B and AV-8B Harriers can operate on such ships.

The trade of a ski jump over a catapult means less stress posed to the operating aircraft on take-off, but also results in lower take-off speeds and max take-off weight.  This design constraint limits the types of aircraft capable of operating on the Queen Elizabeth class carriers. Therefore, the Royal Navy currently only operates F-35Bs, Merlin HM2s, and Wildcat HMA2s on the carriers.

HMS Prince of Wales crew turnaround the aircraft after removing its payload (Photo: Royal Navy)

With the W Autonomous Systems drone completing successful carrier trials, it has now become the second fixed wing aircraft to ever take-off and land on the HMS Prince of Whales.

According to the Royal Navy, 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. As drones are much cheaper to operate and eliminate potential risks to aircrew, especially in bad weather, it is expected to replace the Merlin and Wildcats in the transportation of supplies onto the ship. This furthermore reduces airframe flying hours and allows the rotary wing assets to focus on their designed role of anti-submarine/anti-ship roles.

Lieutenant Ash Loftus, leading the trials for the Royal Navy on board HMS Prince of Wales said: “Today’s demonstration is the culmination of 18 months of hard work from dozens of people across the Royal Navy and W Autonomous Systems. Carrier aviation is amongst the most difficult aspects of naval warfare and this success is testament to their efforts.” This event marks the start of a program to further enhance the capabilities of the British carrier fleet. HMS Prince of Wales is expected to operate in US waters later this year and conduct further integration tests with platforms such as the MV-22B Osprey and MQ-9 derived STOL capable Mojave drone.

About Wonwoo Choi
Wonwoo is a student journalist and contributor to The Aviationist based in London, United Kingdom. Currently studying MEng in Aeronautical Engineering with a keen interest in OSINT, plane spotting and aircraft design. He is a former Sergeant of the Republic of Korea Army, having served as an artillery Fire Direction Centre Vehicle Radio Operator.