UK’s MoD seeks heavy-lift drones for Royal Navy supply missions

The UK Ministry of Defence has announced that the Uncrewed Air Systems Heavy Lift Capability (UASHLC) framework has been created “to accelerate the development of a range of autonomous Heavy Lift UAS for use predominantly, but not exclusively, in the maritime domain”.

This month the MoD issued a tender under the Uncrewed Air Systems Heavy Lift Capability (UASHLC) program, calling for qualified companies to table bids for developing drones capable of transporting weighty payloads. Those future craft will be used primarily to supply ships at sea, but also potentially frontline combat troops and in other scenarios as well. 

The MoD’s formal call for proposals follows an exploratory process the UK Royal Navy kicked off last year with the objective of using heavy-lift drones capable of transporting large quantities of provisions, machine parts, and even fuel as a less expensive and sustainable replacement of helicopters and small airplanes.

In issuing the tender, the MoD said its “intention is to address the lack of current options in the market by increasing the number of delivery ready platforms in order to help support and develop the Authority’s understanding of the potential capabilities and operational uses for such Uncrewed systems.” 

The MoD’s call to private sector actors to propose a range of drones with potential heavy-lift capacities seeks to aid the Royal Navy’s ambition of obtaining UAVs able to fly supplies long distances to UK ships at sea. That drive was initiated with the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose last year hosting its the first Heavy Lift Challenge, which is intended to be a recurring event allowing aeronautic companies to present tech under development.

Initially, at least, the MoD program seeks to encourage creation and deployment of heavy-lift drones for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which oversees supplying UK vessels at sea. It hopes to trial electric craft that can fly payloads of up to 100 lbs. to replace current helicopter transportation, and ratchet upward as weight capacities increase. 

Noting such UAVs would be “for use predominantly, but not exclusively, in the maritime domain,” the MoD’s tender suggests they might also be deployed to supplement smaller, yet relatively heavy-lift drones already being tested to rapidly dispatch blood supplies and other critical medical products for wounded troops in combat situations. The Royal Navy is also overseeing those trials.

The MoD’s tender says its objective is to encourage development of heavy-lift drones for re-supplying missions to provide “speed of relevance to current and future emerging cutting-edge capabilities for use within the Royal Navy and other domains.” As part of that, it says its intention is to “support and inform the development of Maritime operating concepts and enable assessment, analysis, exploration and evaluation of the use of UAS for beyond visual line of sight payload delivery and broader UAS capabilities.”

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