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HMA Ships Benalla, Shepparton to be replaced by unmanned vessels

Sailors cheer ship as HMAS Benalla comes alongside HMAS Cairns for the last time to Cairns, Queensland. Photo: ABMPO Lauren Pugsley.

Remotely controlled unmanned vessels with autopilot capabilities will replace naval ships HMA Ships Benalla and Shepparton, which were decommissioned earlier this month.

Remotely controlled unmanned vessels with autopilot capabilities will replace naval ships HMA Ships Benalla and Shepparton, which were decommissioned earlier this month.

The Paluma Class vessels were based at HMAS Cairns and operated as pairs to collect data regarding the charting of Australia’s northern coastline for more than 30 years.

They make way for robots, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence that will form the Navy’s new optimised hydrographic survey capability. It’s expected that the next Navy military survey vessel will be built in Henderson, Western Australia, later in the decade.

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Commanding Officer Benalla Lieutenant Commander Michael Casey said the survey ships had sailed the same distance it would take to go to the moon and back four times.

“Old stuff is built to last. I treated Benalla with the respect I would with an old car,” Lieutenant Commander Casey said.

“Surveying is exploring what we can’t see underneath, we would find things never seen before, such as wrecks, shoals and subsurface obstructions.

“It’s sad to see them go; these ships have served for over 33 years with distinction and have been home to hundreds of sailors.”

They operated using highly sophisticated sonars to map the sea around Australia and the South Pacific Ocean. The Australian Hydrographic Office created charts with the data, enabling vessels to navigate safely.

The vessels operated with a maximum of 22 personnel and a minimum of 14, who will now go into more deployable survey teams, which operate the autonomous and robotic systems.

Shepparton was the “lady of the fleet”, being the oldest commissioned ship in service. HMAS Anzac will now take on the honour.

Commanding Officer Shepparton Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Stevenson said turning up to work each day with a motivated and exceptional team made it worthwhile.

“Having a small crew was difficult and required everyone to do their job with minimal supervision. It doesn’t leave much redundancy, it’s like a rugby team, everyone has to work together to win,” he said.

The transition to the Hydrographic Industry Partnership Program began nearly two years ago as part of a $150 million investment. The Defence Strategic Review accelerated the decommissioning.

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