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Inside Thales' new £1m robot ship base in Plymouth

October 12th 2018
Global defence giant Thales is set to create up to 100 jobs at a new £1million base in Plymouth where it will test robotic boats for dealing with sea-borne mines.

The French multinational has opened a trials and training centre at Turnchapel Wharf, creating 20 high-skilled jobs, but with an ambition to grow, possibly to as many as 100.

The investment is part of a “major commitment” to developing autonomous and unmanned technology for use in the air and on sea – in other words, robotic vessels.

Thales, which reported global sales of €14 billion in 2015, is creating two new UK centres, the other being in Wales.

The company said that only through experimentation with new and disruptive technologies will the UK military be able to stay ahead and maintain an advantage over other forces.

Thales stressed it is investing in “digitally transformative maritime technologies” including big data, artificial intelligence, digital security and autonomy – or robots.

So its Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials and Evaluation Centre, at Turnchapel Wharf, will change the way autonomous capability is developed in the next decade by enabling rapid exploration and exploitation of emergent and disruptive technologies.

The waterfront facility will specifically provide access to trials areas for the development of cutting-edge maritime autonomous systems, and position Thales at the centre of future maritime autonomous capability, the company said.

The centre is also an integral part of a joint programme between the UK and French governments to develop the next generation of autonomous mine hunting systems.

Matthew Hunt, maritime autonomous systems business lead, said: “We are keen to harness Plymouth’s maritime history and the access to the sea from Turnchapel is unparalleled and gives us access to some really unique conditions.”

Thales has invested £1million in the facility, with a minimum five-year commitment to developing the robot boats and systems.

These will include anti-mine boats, such as the prototype Halcyon vessel which Thales is trialling, which mean sea-borne mines can be disposed of without putting people in danger.

John Hunnibell, maritime operations and trials manager, said: “We will be able to assess mines at sea without putting a human near the minefield.

“Sending a diver down is not that safe, so this will enable boats to go autonomously to the minefield, locate the mine and then return with a remote vehicle which will come in and dispose of it.”

Victor Chavez, chief executive of Thales UK, said: “The unique waterfront location at Turnchapel Wharf will provide access to shallow and deep water trials areas for the development of cutting edge maritime solutions.

“Our ambition is to help anchor a vibrant ecosystem in Plymouth for the development of advanced autonomous systems and we are already working with a range of academic and industry partners to make this a reality.”

Plymouth SMEs, partners and suppliers will take part in initiatives at the facility, while local schools will run STEM activities onsite.

The centre will also be available to academia, enabling institutions working in partnership with Thales UK – such as the University of Plymouth, University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre – to take advantage of Turnchapel Wharf’s world-class facilities.

The centre of excellence will also enable highly trained personnel to test and deliver autonomous trials.

Rapid access to the sea will increase trial time by decreasing transit, and enabling trials to be planned around differing sea conditions, from shallow waters to deep open sea. Also, cyber vulnerability testing and assurance is a key part of the digital offering.

Defence Minister Stuart Andrew said: “Our Armed Forces must remain a step ahead of our adversaries, something we can only do by collaborating with our leading British defence industry.

"Thales’ new Maritime Autonomy Centre is another great example of the work being done by our suppliers to ensure our military remains equipped with state-of-the-art capabilities.

"This centre of excellence will enable industry and academia to experiment and innovate together to help counter emerging sea-based threats and ensure we remain one of the world’s leading militaries.”

Leader of Plymouth City Council Tudor Evans said: “This world-class facility is adding enormously to Plymouth’s fantastic marine community, and we are delighted that it brings with it high skilled jobs and investment.

"Plymouth is well on its way to becoming one of Europe’s most vibrant waterfront cities, and having facilities like this is essential to our growth and progress, putting the city at the forefront of maritime technology development.”