The UK’s defence body has conscripted French defence firm Thales to develop a drone program to defuse underwater mines in a £17 million contract.

The 18-month project will see a consortium including BAE systems and led by Thales to create autonomous boats and submarines that can be operated remotely by Royal Navy vessels, improving safety and accuracy.

South African Navy submarine SAS Charlotte Maxeke cuts through the surface ahead during an exercise off the coast of South Africa © MOD

The UK will also work with the French defence body to develop two vehicles – an unmanned surface boat with sonar as well as a captain-less submarine.

The systems, meeting the operational requirements of both nations, incorporate state-of-the-art technologies including very high-resolution multiview imaging sonars and sophisticated analysis tools to provide unparalleled levels of performance in automatic threat recognition and classification.

“Both the UK and France recognise the potential for unmanned vehicles to counter the threat of sea-mines,” The Ministry of Defence’s chief of materiel Bernard Gray said.

If successful, the sea drones will be offered on the export market as part of the UK industry’s ‘Maritime Intelligent Systems’.

Other autonomous systems like the development of driverless cars, robot surgeons and automated farming within the UK are tipped to transform the economy – but only if Britain brushes off competition from the US, South Korea, China, Japan, France and Germany.

But the estimated £327 million government spending in the field needs to be better managed to beat off international competition, a report last week found.

Defence minister Philip Dunne said: “The development of unmanned maritime systems is a new and exciting area for both the UK and France. By working together and drawing on a common vision for unmanned underwater systems, we will be able to explore the military, technological, financial and skills benefits that developing this maritime capability could bring.”

Private firms like Facebook and Amazon also made announcements about their drone programmes last week.

Facebook sent a machine named Aquila up into UK skies to test whether internet connection can be beamed down to users on the ground. Aquila is part of a wider project to serve remote areas in the world with internet.

In addition, Amazon was given the green light after an eight-month wait from the US aviation authorities, to see if it could test its Prime Air service which will see drones deliver a package to a customer’s door within half an hour.

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