Once it is fully operational, HMS Queen Elizabeth will doubtless be the most heavily protected vessel in the Royal Navy. For now, however, it seems the £3bn pride of the British fleet is so lightly defended that a £300 drone can be landed for an unauthorised visit to the aircraft carrier’s decks.
An amateur enthusiast has told how he overflew the largest – and most expensive – warship ever built for Britain’s armed forces with his Parrot Bebop drone before briefly landing on its vast flight deck as it sat, apparently unmanned, on Cromarty Firth in the Scottish Highlands.
The ability of a hobbyist to take a private and unchallenged remote-controlled tour of “Big Lizzy” will raise difficult questions about security surrounding the vessel – as well as throwing into sharp relief the fact that the carrier will not have its own complement of aircraft for authorised take-offs and landings for several years to come.
The drone pilot, who asked not be named, posted footage on Facebook of a series of flights over the carrier while it was docked at Invergordon during ongoing sea trials before it is due to arrive at its new home port of Portsmouth as early as next week.
The enthusiast told the Inverness Courier: “I was amazed that I was able to land on the aircraft carrier for two reasons, the first being that there was no-one to prevent it from landing, although there were security police around in small boats who were waving at the drone.”
The amateur flier said he had been forced to land on the deck of the ship after a warning of high winds on the control panel of his drone. He added: “I expected the deck to be steel, which would send the drone’s electronic landing systems haywire, but I was able to touch down OK and took a couple of shots.
There was absolutely no-one around when I landed, it was like a ghost ship.” The 65,000-tonne flagship, one of two super-carriers being built for the Royal Navy, has not yet been formally handed over to the military as it continues to be fine tuned by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, the consortium that is building both vessels.
Trials with the carriers’ American-built F35B “Lightning” aircraft are due to begin next year but the Queen Elizabeth is not due to be fully operational until 2021. The drone pilot said he had been so concerned about his visit to the carrier that he drove to the dockyard in an attempt to explain in person to the crew what he had been doing but was told there was no-one available because all personnel were ashore at dinner.
The hobbyist added: “The ship has not been commissioned by the Royal Navy yet and doesn’t have aircraft, so I don’t think its defence systems that could block radio signals will be fully operational. If they were, there would be no way I would get within a mile of this vessel. “But it is worth a lot of money and I suppose I could have been a Talibani or anything.”
The incident is the latest security scare involving drones, which have been involved in multiple near misses with commercial jets landing at airports as well as criminal uses such as delivering drugs and weapons to prisons.
A Scottish MSP said he was considering tabling a question in the Edinburgh parliament about the incident. Liberal Democrat Jamie Stone said: “I think the moral of this astonishing tale is that there is a serious question about security for the Royal Navy for it would have been quite easy for someone of evil intent to do something quite serious.
Even a drone crashing into its radar could cause damage.” The Ministry of Defence said it had tightened security on the carrier following the incident.
An MOD spokesperson said: “We take the security of HMS Queen Elizabeth very seriously. This incident has been reported to Police Scotland, an investigation is underway and we stepped up our security measures in light of it.”