Royal Navy ships could in future be controlled remotely by captains on land using new augmented reality headsets and artificial intelligence technologies being developed by a UK defence company.
The technology could pave the way for semi-autonomous naval vessels with much smaller crews, according to BAE Systems.
Transferring naval command rooms that are currenttly always on-board vessels onto land could reduce the risks to sailors and improve safety during combat, according to the British defence company.
Frank Cotton, BAE chief technology officer for naval systems, said: “The concept of the future Navy control room that we are working with is that it 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?”
The concept is likely to take time to be adopted because it runs strongly against naval traditions which dictate that a ship’s captain needs to be on board but was already technically feasible, he added.
“I think the Navy would be very suspicious of the idea at first.”
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, Mr Cotton explained.
The BAE Systems executive said advances in technology could also have a big impact on naval warfare.
The AI that Mr Cotton and his team are developing for the new control rooms could spot incoming threats to a warship and instantly prioritise them, so that commanders know which enemy vessels to take out first.
BAE Systems is investing £20m into AR and AI technologies to develop future applications for warships.
The company plans to trial augmented reality glasses on the bridge of Royal Navy frigates, so it can be in use by officers by the end of next year.
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.
Mr Cotton added: “These technologies have the potential to transform maritime warfare and greatly increase the situational awareness and efficiency of crews on board Royal Navy ships.”
The AR equipment that the Royal Navy and BAE Systems’ will use during the trial will be Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, that customers in the UK can buy for around £400 on the high street.
It will first be tested in March next year at a Naval military exercise in Southampton, called “Information Warrior 19”. The exercise is used every year by the Military of Defence to test out new hardware and technology in a fake combat scenario.