When people think about drones, they usually imagine aerial drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). However, there are also underwater drones.
Underwater drones, like aerial ones, go by different names and come in numerous variations. They may be referred to as unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV), autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs) or underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
The term ROV often refers to a vehicle that is tethered and operated by people on a nearby vessel. UUV typically refers to a drone that operates more independently.
According to the Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Applications Center, there are 255 unique configurations of AUV systems across 148 vehicle platforms and counting. Interest in submarine drones continues to grow.
Although undersea drones are still relatively unknown, their history dates at least as far back as the 1950s.
As with aerial drones, much of history of the underwater autonomous vehicle is closely related to the military.
In 1957, the Office of Naval Research funded the development of one of the first UUVs — the Special Purpose Underwater Research Vehicle (SPURV). The drone, developed by the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, could dive to 10,000 feet and function for four hours.
The first use of AUVs can also be attributed to the U.S. Navy. In the 1960s, the Navy began using them to retrieve lost equipment, and in 1966, used its Cable-Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle (CURV) to recover a missing atomic bomb off the coast of Spain.
In 1973, ROVs had another big success when one helped save the crew of a deep-sea submarine that sank off the coast of Ireland. Over the rest of the decade, ROVs began to become more common across numerous industries.
In the 1980s, ROVs played vital roles in finding the wreckage of various ships. One underwater drone, the Argo, discovered the wreckage on the Titanic in 1985 and that of a World War II battleship called the Bismarck in 1989.
During the next decade, the U.S. Navy began investing in building UUVs that could disable sea mines. Priorities for the program included developing drones that find mines without being detected by enemies.
1996 saw the introduction of the Near-Term Mine Reconnaissance System (NMRS), a two-vehicle system that a submarine could launch from a torpedo tube. The NMRS was attached to the submarine by a fiber-optic tether. The Long-Term Mine Reconnaissance System eventually replaced the NMRS.
2000s to Today
In 2004, the Navy updated its priorities related to UUVs. It released its Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Master Plan, which outlined nine areas of focus, including delivering supplies, firing weapons and disabling enemy submarines.
The first time that a UUV was used in a combat environment was in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The U.S. used a REMUS UUV to help remove sea mines from the area surrounding the port of Umm Qasr.
The Navy continues to increase its focus on underwater drones. The U.S. Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2019 budget includes $9.6 billion for unmanned systems across all branches of the military. Most of the budget is dedicated to aerial drones, but submarines are a growing area of focus, with $1.3 billion in funding. The Navy has the largest unmanned systems budget of any branch with approximately $3.5 billion, about a $1 billion increase over the previous year.
In July, the DOD awarded an $800 million contract for research and development related to AUVs. A drone called the Mk 18 Kingfish is expected to play a key part in this program and be used for data collection, surveillance, mine countermeasure operations and more.
Currently, research is underway into improving the autonomy and communication capabilities of underwater drones. Recently, researchers at MIT demonstrated a system that allows AUVs to autonomously adjust their behavior according to environmental sensory input. The system uses a software infrastructure called mission orientated operation suite (MOOS).
NATO’s Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) is working on the communication challenge. Researchers from various countries are developing a system of AUVs that use acoustic modems to communicate with one another. This capability could enable them to cooperate to complete a mission.
Outside of the military, a variety of industries use existing underwater ROV technologies, including aquaculture, environmental research, salvage diving, infrastructure repair and oil production, to explore underwater environments and inspect assets.
For a technology that so few have heard of, underwater drones have a long history. The military has played an integral role in much of the innovation surrounding AUVs, but the private sector is now also starting to benefit from their capabilities. Research and development related to underwater drones continues today and will help make them a more commonly used technology in the coming years.
Emily is a green tech writer who covers topics in renewable energy and sustainable design. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.