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Launching the Puma from the deck of RFA Cardigan Bay as HMS Shoreham manoeuvres in the background
Senior Chief Engineman Bradley Williamson prepares to send the Puma aloft from Cardigan Bay

Robot plane flies from RFA Cardigan Bay

Published: 04 Dec 2012

Minehunter support ship RFA Cardigan Bay is being used to test mini robot planes in the fight against illegal activity on the high seas east of Suez.The ship, which acts as mother to the Royal Navy’s four Gulf-based minehunters, is acting as the launchpad for small Puma reconnaissance drones which are being trialled by the US Navy.

On the back of RFA Cardigan Bay, Senior Chief Engineman Bradley Williamson of the US Navy launches a Puma AE drone into the Gulf sky as the Coalition forces try out the latest ‘eye in the sky’ surveillance plane.The amphibious ship is currently acting as the mother ship to the Royal Navy’s four Gulf-based minehunters, is home to the mine warfare battlestaff who direct the quartet’s operations, and has been used as a floating base by US riverine patrol boats, which have run into and out of the Bay-class ship’s impressive loading dock.

The Americans’ riverine squadron are currently trialling the Puma AE – the full, and rather convoluted title is Pointer Upgraded Mission Ability (All Environment) – to see what the small intelligence-gathering aircraft might offer to warships on patrol. 

The trials aboard Cardigan Bay, and other vessels in the Gulf, are the first by the US Navy in an operational capacity.The idea is that Puma is used for reconnaissance, or in support of board and search or rescue missions. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to send aloft than a helicopter – if one is available – and its size means it’s difficult to detect at high altitude.

It has a wingspan of 270cm (110in), weighs 8kg (18lb), can fly in temperatures as low as -6°C or as hot as 49°C, and can cope with as much as 60mm (quarter of an inch) of rain in an hour. A two-strong team directs the Puma’s sorties; an operator to fly it, a mission controller who’s the aircraft/mission commander, determining where to fly and what to look at. The robot plane is equipped with an infrared camera, with the information it collects sent back to the controller’s laptop; should a Puma fall into unfriendly hands, the only info they’ll recover is GPS data. Once a mission is done the drone can be brought back to its mother ship or landed in the water; it can stay afloat for several hours and be collected by a RIB.


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