The Royal Navy has taken a measured approach to its exploration of UAVs for use in vessel-based operations, but is yet to have a robust capability in either the fixed- or rotary-wing categories. The service operated the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle on a contractor-owned, contractor-operated basis from 2013 to 2017 – and despite seemingly assessing several replacement alternatives during its Unmanned Warrior exercise in 2016, it still does not have a new fixed-wing tactical system in operation.

One area that the navy does continue to invest in, however, is the rotary-wing capability – albeit via an assessment programme, and not yet operationally. The navy's first investment in a rotary-wing unmanned air system (RWUAS) came via a capability concept demonstration (CCD) with the Leonardo Helicopters/PZL Swidnik SW-4 Solo optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) in 2013. That platform has also been demonstrated to the Italian ministry of defence.

The first phase of the CCD saw the aircraft carry out 26 flights over 27 flight hours at Llanbedr airfield in Wales, with 22 further simulated ship launch and recovery demonstrations showing the aircraft's ability to land on a pitching and rolling surface.

"Following successful demonstrations of capability contracted by the UK and Italian MoDs in recent years, participation in exercises in the UK and Italy in sea and land environments, the SW-4 Solo has been heavily involved in testing in Poland, the UK and Italy," according to Leonardo.

The most recent success for the Solo was flying with no safety pilot on board during a flight at Taranto-Grottaglie airport in southern Italy, which Leonardo announced at the end of February 2018: "The aircraft flew for 45min and all systems performed as expected, with excellent controllability and handling qualities." A spokesperson added that during the tests the Solo reached an altitude of 1,500ft and an airspeed of 60kt (111km/h).

These tests included remote engine start-up and shutdown with ground run, automatic take-off and landing, hovering out of ground effect and acceleration to forward flight, automatic way point navigation to and from the area of operation, and simulation of a surveillance mission.

Leonardo adds that further trials will be performed later this year in Europe: "The SW-4 Solo has demonstrated an excellent starting point for the further development of capabilities which are seen as scalable to smaller and larger platforms in all main weight categories."

A second phase of the CCD with the RN is under way, and is expected to feature the company's smaller rotary-wing aircraft – the SD-150 Hero – to test ship-based operations from a RN Type 23 frigate.

Most notably, the company is hoping for a third phase after the second CCD completes this year – but for that element of RWUAS, it plans to develop a new-build airframe that will be in the 1-2t category.

This will be a specifically unmanned platform, not an OPV, so will therefore be cheaper because it is designed for the role from the offset, and does not need to be adapted from a manned aircraft.

The Hero test on board the frigate is expected to take place in the middle of this year, and will be the first known use of this particular platform in the RN RWUAS programme. According to Leonardo: "AWHERO's development and testing continues to pass milestones on the road towards certification, which is expected in 2019.

"Two new prototypes are being assembled at the facility of fully owned company Sistemi Dinamici in Pisa, as flight trials activities continue with the existing test aircraft."

Testing is already under way to assess low-speed flights at close range to Pisa, followed by envelope expansion tests at another range in central Italy before prototypes three and four begin ground and flight trials.

Leonardo expects the UAV to be suitable for land and maritime applications, including in manned-unmanned teaming scenarios. The aircraft, says the company, "is also being thoroughly assessed by a number of potential customers worldwide" and was presented to national and local authorities around Australia – a nation keen on bolstering its unmanned capabilities – in March.

Describing AWHERO as "the perfect fit for a number of Australian requirements supporting defence, law enforcement and border control programmes", Leonardo adds that it sees "huge potential for unmanned systems in Australia".

The company says, moreover, that it "is committed to setting up industrial collaborations with local players". In preparation for future requirements in the country, Leonardo has teamed up with Air Affairs Australia to provide maintenance and services, should a contract be awarded.

Both test vehicles will be utilised in the European Union's Ocean2020 project, through which Leonardo will lead a number of companies and organisations in exploring how UAVs can be used to improve maritime situational awareness.

In 2019, both Leonardo rotary-wing aircraft will be used for demonstrations under the effort on board vessels.