The U.K. Royal Navy is widening its focus on the potential of shipborne unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

While much of its attention has been on the development of a carrier strike capability with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and two new aircraft carriers, commanders are eager to broaden the intelligence-gathering capability of the navy's surface fleet.

In June, the Defense Ministry signed a £30 million ($47 million) two-year deal for the contractor-owned and -operated Insitu ScanEagle UAS to provide intelligence-gathering for the anti-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean. This would give commanders a better sense of shipborne UAS capabilities in an operational setting.

But in July, the Royal Navy signed a £2.3 million contract with AgustaWestland to carry out a naval UAS study program, known as the Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD). The project aims to land an AgustaWestland-built optionally piloted helicopter on a Royal Navy ship sometime next year.

“The program has been developed to inform the Royal Navy of the options and the capabilities that are available, and what is the art of the possible,” says an industry official close to the program.

The RWUAS will use AgustaWestland's unmanned SW-4 Solo 1.8-ton light helicopter built by PZL-Swidnik. The rotorcraft maker will draw on support from Thales, which has experience from the Watchkeeper UAS program.

The trial will see the rotorcraft take off from a shore site, land on a Royal Navy ship and then return, similar to tests carried out by the French navy using Boeing's unmanned AH-6U Little Bird last October. The CCD trials will also explore sensors such a platform might use for offensive surface warfare, mine countermeasures, hydrography and meteorology, as well as general situational awareness.

Results from the RWUAS project will inform the Royal Navy's Tactical Maritime UAS, intended to field an unmanned system capability to enter service around 2020. Such a UAS would operate from Type 45 air defense ships and future Type 26 Global Combat Ships, working alongside the ship's helicopter.