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Thales UK Opens New Autonomy Centre in Plymouth By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.





An extremely important part of what should be regarded as an on-going £6 billion programme of global investment into digital transformative technologies by Thales and that includes Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Security and Autonomy, it is great to see that Thales UK has now formally opened its Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials and Evaluation Centre located at Turnchapel Wharf, Plymouth.

Opening of the Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials and Evaluation Centre at Turnchapel not only builds on Thales’s leadership in autonomous systems but will, in my view, further strengthen the position of Thales and other parts of UK industry in the hugely important emerging market technologies area. Following on from the First Sea Lords challenge to industry made at DSEI 2017 calling on industry to invest in autonomy and work on solutions together with the Royal Navy, I see what has been achieved by Thales UK at Turnchapel Wharf as being a fine example of the company reaching out to industry experts, SME’s and academia along with a determination to stay of the forefront of fast moving technology development and be seen to be investing in its own future.

The waterfront facility at Turnchapel which my being in Plymouth on Friday, I had been able to observe externally, is extremely impressive. Built for the purposes of developing, assessing and certifying existing and future major maritime autonomy programmes, the Turnchapel Wharf facility is intended to provide access to trials areas for development of cutting edge maritime autonomous systems. In the process it will act as a safe and world class gateway for the Ministry of Defence, Royal Navy, industry and academia to come and test maritime autonomous systems in deep and shallow ranges near to Plymouth.

The Turnchapel investment positions Thales, just as it also does the Royal Navy, at the centre of maritime autonomous capability development. This is a very important move in the UK call for technology innovation investment and Thales are to be congratulated for rising to the challenge.


To demonstrate work already done, the Minister of Defence Procurement, Stuart Andrew MP who was in Plymouth to open the Turnchapel Wharf centre on Thursday was, I understand, given a ride in the latest unmanned maritime Thales USV which is known as Boat Zero One. As the latest ‘Unmanned Surface Vessel’ (USV) to be developed by Thales, it is worth noting here that with manned crews aboard, earlier last week ‘Boat Zero One’ having departed Thales Brest bound for Plymouth and having been met halfway by the other Thales developed USV ‘Halcyon’ both vessels then sailed into the Thales Turnchapel Wharf facility in Plymouth. This was in fact to be the first open sea journey for both USV platforms, designed to prove not only sea keeping capabilities and range of the vessels but, given the importance of the opening of the new Thales Turnchapel facility, in providing a great link between Thales Brest and Plymouth based sites.

Digital transformation is regarded as being one of the most important challenges facing the armed forces of many NATO member countries today. Only through investment and experimentation of new and disruptive technologies such as those currently now being undertaken by Thales UK, can the intention that our maritime forces be at the forefront of these new emerging market technologies and well positioned to maintain operational advantage be met.

I am no specialist on these future technologies but with Autonomy and its key enabler, it is not hard to envisage that big data, artificial intelligence, digital security and connectivity, already in mine warfare domain categories and soon to be used as operational capability for the first time, will provide a vital route to future defence capability requirements. Through investment such as that being made by Thales at Turnchapel Wharf  means that achieving what will be required by the military in regard of Autonomy and its key enablers across all military domains is not only within our grasp but that it will ensure that the UK defence Industry has a key role to play.

Using experience and expertise gained from across Thales Group and continuing the long tradition that the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and industry has had over many decades with Turnchapel Wharf, an example here being the long and very successful relationship that Thales has itself enjoyed with the Royal Navy and other maritime forces, the Thales Maritime Autonomy Centre development at Turnchapel Wharf demonstrates a determination by the company to ensure that it can retain the lead position in crucial areas of future military technology requirement and that it will also be able to offer required level of skills and expertise as a means to support the huge transformation and change in future military equipment requirement anticipated.

In respect of this also being an important part of Anglo-French cooperation, the £1 million Turnchapel Wharf centre investment is an integral part of a multi-million pound joint programme agreed between the UK and French governments two years ago in respect of developing next generation autonomous mine hunting systems capability. In the frame of the Lancaster House Agreement and the Maritime Mine Countermeasures (MMCM) programme, Thales is developing for OCCAR and for both the Royal Navy and French Marine Nationale, the first unmanned mine warfare system for which autonomy will be regarded as being operational capability. With the MMCM programme having now entered into the integration and validation stage the intention is that the Turnchapel centre will act as a key enabler through the validation process.

Unmanned surface vehicles, loaded with world-first single pass multi-views sonar, are of course already operating at sea but as a world first autonomous technology development that is designed to enable remote detection and neutralisation of mines and to improve capability and safety for Royal Navy personnel, the work now going on at Turnchapel is crucial for future maritime sector operational defence requirements.

As a centre of excellence and with between 20 to 30 new high skilled jobs already or yet to be created, the £1 million investment that Thales has made in the Turnchapel  Wharf includes a minimum five-year commitment to developing of autonomous systems on the site.


As Thales UK CEO Victor Chavez said at the opening on Thursday, “Turnchapel Wharf will provide access to shallow and deep water trials areas for the development of cutting edge maritime solutions” adding that “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.”


Local SMEs, partners and suppliers will also take part in various initiatives at the facility and importantly, the intention is that local schools will also be able to run STEM activities onsite. The Turnchapel Wharf facility 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.


Other important aspects of what I regard as being a unique UK based centre of excellence will include the ability to work closely with the Maritime & Coastguard Agency in order to allow platforms and capabilities developed to be certified to best practice standards, the ability to have highly trained personnel on hand to test and deliver autonomous based trials. The ability to have rapid access to sea and the corresponding decrease in transit requirement also provides the ability increase availability for progressive trials to be planned around differing sea conditions and specific requirements. Importantly, the plan also entails running of de-risking trials and secure by design systems designed to ensure that cyber vulnerability testing and assurance becomes a key part of the overall digital offering.

While benefits for maritime defence, for industry and for Thales of the Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials and Evaluation Centre development should be self-evident, benefits of securing this world class facility investment by Thales in the City of Plymouth should not be lost either. Bringing additional high skilled jobs requirement to this important city, one that is already at the forefront of maritime technology development and that includes the huge Royal Navy base at Devonport is an essential part of maintaining the strength and traditions of this being one of the two single most important ‘maritime’ cities in the UK.

CHW (London –15th October 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd      

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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