Last week a small unmanned vessel washed up on the rocky Scottish Isle of Tiree, about a hundred miles from the UK’s nuclear submarine base as Faslane.  It was identified as a Wave Glider, a type made by U.S. company Liquid Robotics, capable of traveling thousands of miles and used by both the U.S. Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy as well as other government agencies and scientific researchers. The local Coastguard have been unable to trace the owner so far, but the craft’s configuration suggests it was on a secret mission.

Contacted by Forbes, Britain’s Ministry of Defence were at first uncertain, but later provided a definite statement.

“The vessel is not ours,” said a spokesman.

They could not provide any information about whether the washed-up Glider might be a U.S. Navy vessel. The U.S. Navy, and makers Liquid Robotics have not yet responded to requests for information

The other possibility is that it is a scientific research boat. This seems unlikely because of the unusual configuration of antennas. Cefas, who have previously used a Wave Glider to monitor fish stocks in the North Sea confirmed it was not theirs.  A Wave Glider maintains regular contact with its operator via satellite, so they would always know where it is. The vehicle costs upwards of $250k and the sensors can add substantially to that, so a commercial or scientific operator normally recovers lost craft as soon as possible.

There are a couple of unusual features about this particular Wave Glider which suggest a military rather than scientific mission. One is that is grey rather than the usual bright yellow, with no pennant to make it easier to see. There are no navigation lights, which are compulsory for any vessel sailing at night under UK law, or a radar reflector. Without these aids, the glider, which lies flat on the water, would be extremely difficult to spot. This would make it a navigation hazard, though in almost any collision the small unmanned craft would probably come off worse. This may explain why one of the antennas is broken and how it ended washed up on a beach. The question though is why such a vessel would be sailing covertly in ‘stealth mode.’

This Wave Glider has no sensors above water like most scientific research craft, just communication antenna. Any sensors were  below the waterline, like the SHARC towed sonar used for submarine detection and tracking, demonstrated in the UK’s Unmanned Warrior exercise in 2018.

Locating the owner of the glider is the responsibility of the Receiver of Wreck. This is a government post with an ancient lineage. As well as identifying ownership of salvaged craft and ensuring that finders are recompensed, the Receiver of Wreck is responsible for ‘Royal Fish’ – whales, dolphins and sturgeon – considered the property of the monarch in a law dating back to the 14th century.

The modern era of unmanned and potentially untraceable vessels will make things more complicated than the old days, when it was just a matter of reading the name on the side of a boat and penning a letter to the owners. China holds annual awards for fisherman who bring in unmanned craft caught in its territorial waters, which are considered to be ‘foreign spies’. Some do appear to be American-made unmanned craft and may be on intelligence-gathering missions. (Meanwhile unidentified aerial drones regularly buzz U.S. nuclear facilities).

The location of the Isle of Tiree is suggestive, as it is close to the main highway for UK submarine operations from Faslane.

In an additional twist, one respondent to the call for information about the mystery glide pointed out what appeared to be a similar craft, in much worse condition, which washed up on a beach less than a hundred miles away in Northern Ireland in September 2019. This one was also grey and was a bare hull with antennas and other attachments broken off. It also remained unclaimed, suggesting the owners did not wish to be known.

At this stage, all we can say is that these craft are not from the British military but are operating in U.K. waters and trying to remain undetected while in an area of considerable strategic significance. Are they being operated by a U.S. agency, with or without British knowledge? Or are they being operated by someone else?

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