Inspector 125: Keeping crews out of the danger zone

Belgium and The Netherlands selected Exail and Naval Group for their next generation mine countermeasures program. This innovative project combines several crewed mother ships with autonomous vehicles and advanced sensors. ONE The cornerstone of this unique system is Exail’s USV called Inspector 125.

Detecting and neutralizing maritime mines without sending a ship into the minefield has long been considered science fiction. However, thanks to Exail’s Inspector 125 Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) and its payloads, this concept has now become a reality.

The first Inspector 125 which is currently undergoing a comprehensive test campaign in the South of France incorporates the best of Exail’s technology in mission systems, sensors, and naval architecture. Its delicate mission consists in deploying autonomous or teleoperated vehicles to detect, classify, identify, and neutralize mines, while acting as a communication relay to the land or the mother ship stationed safely outside the danger zone.

The Inspector 125 is one of Exail’s most ambitious projects in terms of multi-mission surface drones. This 12.3 m long for 4.2 m wide boat has a full composite hull. Like all mine-hunting vessels, it is designed to have the lowest acoustic and magnetic signatures while being able to withstand underwater explosions.

To ensure the success of its missions, the Inspector 125 is packed with advanced technology sensors and systems. Its standard equipment includes a powerful propulsion system, a radar, an Automatic Identification System (AIS), infrared and conventional cameras, and an Exail’s FLS-5 forward-looking sonar.

The accuracy of navigation and positioning has been considered a high priority from the beginning of the program. The USV is equipped with a GPS unit, an Exail’s Phins inertial navigation system, and a Doppler Velocity Log. Secure radio and satellite communication systems enable the unmanned vehicle to maintain constant contact with deployed units on the surface while an Exail’s Gaps USBL susbea positioning system ensures the positioning of the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) operating in the area, and their communication with the USV.

Two versions for an unrivaled efficiency

The Inspector 125 comes in two versions: USV125, propelled by water jets, is specialized in deploying unmanned devices such as the A18-M, T18-M, Seascan, and K-Ster C, while the USV125-S, equipped with propellers, specializes in mine sweeping. This next generation USV is designed to operate with different levels of autonomy and supervision, ranging from full teleoperation to complete autonomy during communication blackout or when mission requirements demand it.

Engineers at Exail emphasized versatility during the surface drone’s design, allowing users to precisely configure it according to their operational needs at any given time.

During a typical mission, the Inspector 125, already configured, equipped, and programmed, is deployed from its mother ship that remains at a safe distance. Once it reaches its designated, potentially mined area, it deploys an AUV called A18-M. This AUV equipped with Exail’s UMISAS synthetic aperture sonar moves around its patrol area for hours searching for mines.

After having launched the A18-M, the Inspector 125 continues its mission using its onboard Exail’s FLS-5 sonar, looking for mines and obstacles in the water column down to 300 m deep.

Communication relay

In the same time, another Inspector 125, equipped with the T18-M towed sonar, can carry out another mine detection mission in a different area. The T18-M is equipped with the same Umisas sonar as the A18-M but its data are transmitted permanently in real time to the Inspector 125 through a cable. The data are then seamlessly sent to the mother ship via the radiocommunication system of the USV.

During its mission, the Inspector 125 can also act as a communication relay between all underwater vehicles on-site and the mother ship. Once the mines have been accurately detected and located by the towed T18-M and various AUVs deployed in the area, it’s time for precise identification and neutralization. The Inspector 125 is then reconfigured to carry and deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) called Seascan, which use sonars for mine location and high-resolution cameras for identification. Once this process is complete, the Seascan ROV is automatically retrieved by the USV. It is then time to launch the last phase of the mission: neutralizing the threats.

For mine neutralization, two methods are used from the USV. The first involves using the K-Ster C expendable mine disposal ROV, which approaches the identified mine closely and triggers an explosive shaped charge. Another method is equipping the Inspector 125 with a towed mine sweeping device. This system contains magnetic and acoustic generators that trigger the mines’ explosion by activating their firing mechanism, like what a ship would do.

A first prototype of Inspector 125 has been undergoing tests at Exail in the South of France since 2021, and the other 16 USVs will be delivered from Exail’s workshops in Ostend (Belgium) to Belgium “Composante Marine” (Maritime Component) and the Royal Netherland’s Navy. Meanwhile, Naval Group and Kership are preparing 12 mother ships of the M940 Oostend-class, with the first in series nearing completion.