Commandos could one day operate from a crewless boat that has been launched by the Royal Navy.
More than £3 million is being invested in the Pacific 24 vessel – and other autonomous small craft technology.
The first crewless boat for general duties with the Navy is now ready for trials and could form part of the “fleet of tomorrow”.
The vessels could operate individually – or in groups – racing over the ocean at speeds of up to 38 knots (nearly 44mph).
The Pacific 24 has been the backbone of sea boat operations from Royal Navy warships for more than a quarter of a century.
They serve as the springboard for commandos and sailors on board-and-search operations looking for drugs in the Caribbean and Middle East, and ferry personnel and stores between ships or from ship to shore.
They also play a fundamental role in lifesaving search-and-rescue operations.
But there may be occasions when a crewless vessel might perform the same, similar, or even entirely new missions.
Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin said: “Commencing the trials of the crewless Pacific 24 boat is an important stepping stone in the Royal Navy’s development of its autonomous capability to ensure our fleet remains at the forefront of military innovation and technology, ready to meet the evolving threats of modern warfare.”
The crewless Pacific 24 is sponsored by NavyX – the specialist wing of the Royal Navy dedicated to rapidly developing, testing and trialling cutting-edge and new technologies for use on the front line.
The team has worked in partnership with BAE Systems, which builds the Pacific 24 in Portsmouth, to commission the new boat.
A prototype, controlled from the frigate HMS Argyll, debuted at the DSEI defence/technology showcase in London last September, since when BAE and the Navy have pressed ahead with a working model fit for the front line.
The vessel’s control system and sensors mean that a sailor should be able to give the unmanned craft generic tasking, and the boat will decide for itself how it carries out that task.
Trials with the new craft begin this month, followed by trials with a Royal Navy warship later this year which should determine whether the UK invests in a fleet of such craft or just a few for specific missions.
Lieutenant Commander Rob Manson, of the NavyX team, said: “The autonomous Pacific 24 is not just a step change for the Royal Navy in unmanned operations, it also ensures the Navy remains at the forefront of technological improvement and innovation.
“While initial tasks are likely to be familiar to those who already operate a Pacific 24, the autonomous nature of this craft adds huge capability and flexibility.”