Unmanned underwater vehicle

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV), sometimes known as underwater drones, [1] are any submersible vehicles that are able to operate underwater without a human occupant. These vehicles are robotic, and may be divided into the two categories of remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROUVs), which are remotely controlled by a human operator; and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are highly automated and operate independently of direct human input. Sometimes only vehicles in the second category are considered a kind of autonomous robot, but those in the first category are also robots though requiring a remote operator, similar to surgical robots.


AUV REMUS (front) and Seafox (rear)

The navies of multiple countries, including the US, UK, France, Russia, and China[2] are currently creating unmanned vehicles to be used in oceanic warfare to discover and terminate underwater mines. For instance, the REMUS is a three-foot long robot used to clear mines in one square mile within 16 hours.[3] This is much more efficient, as a team of human divers would need upwards of 21 days to perform the same task. In addition to UUVs with the purpose of clearing out mines, autonomous submarines began to be prototyped as of 2008.[4] Especially autonomous submarines face much of the same ethical issues as other unmanned weapons.[4] Other applications include ship hull inspection (Bluefin),[5] wreck inspection (Blueye Pioneer),[6] nuclear reactor decontamination, exploration, and mining/drilling.

Unmanned underwater vehicles have other potential military applications. A survey conducted by RAND Corporation for the US military analyzed the missions which unmanned underwater vehicles could perform, which included intelligence, reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, and submarine warfare. The review listed these from most to least important.[7]

OODA Technologies, a data collection and analysis company, is highly interested in utilizing UUVs along the coasts of Canada. According to OODA,[8] these unmanned craft provide much greater coverage of an area at a much lower cost. The quality of the data returned by unmanned marine vehicles is also stated to be much higher than that of traditional manned craft.[citation needed]

Deep-sea exploration and researchEdit

A video describing the operation and use of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in deep sea research.
A ROV at 1,067 meters depth.

Unmanned underwater vehicles can be used for deep-sea exploration and research. For example remotely operated vehicles have been used to collect samples from the sea-floor to measure its microplastics-contents,[9] to explore the deep-sea fauna and structures and discovering new underwater species.[10][11]

UUVs are commonly used in oceanic research, for purposes such as current and temperature measurement, ocean floor mapping, and Hydrothermal vent detection. Unmanned underwater vehicles utilize seafloor mapping, bathymetry, digital cameras, magnetic sensors, and ultrasonic imaging.

A video showing the partly autonomous deep-sea soft robots

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution employs a vehicle called the Sentry, which is designed to map the ocean floor at depths of six thousand meters. The vehicle is shaped to minimize water resistance during dives, and utilized acoustic communications systems to report the vehicles status while operating. Unmanned underwater vehicles are capable of recording conditions and terrain below sea ice, as the risk of sending an unmanned vehicle into unstable ice formations is much lower than that of a manned vessel. Glider type unmanned vehicles are often used to measure ocean temperatures and current strengths at various depths. Their simplicity and reduced operating costs allow more UUVs to be deployed with greater frequency, increasing the accuracy and detail of ocean weather reporting. Many UUVs designed with the purpose of collecting seafloor samples or images are of the towed type, being pulled by a ship's cable along either the seafloor or above. Towed vehicles may be selected for tasks which require large amounts of power and data transmission, such as sample testing and high definition imaging, as their tow cable serve as the method of communication between controller and craft. In 2021, scientists demonstrated a bioinspired self-powered soft robot for deep-sea operation that can withstand the pressure at the deepest part of the ocean at the Mariana Trench. The robot features artificial muscles and wings out of pliable materials and electronics distributed within its silicone body and could be used for exploration and environmental monitoring.[12][13][14]

Science Direct claims the use of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles has risen consistently since they were introduced in the 1960s, and find their most frequent use in scientific research and data collection. Oceanservice describes Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous underwater vehicle (AUVs) as two variations of UUVs, each able to accomplish the same tasks, provided the craft is properly designed.[citation needed]


These examples of applications took place during the fourth iteration of the Advanced Naval Technology exercises, in August at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport. The first example of unmanned underwater vehicles was displayed by Northrop Grumman with their air drop sonobuoy's from a fire scout aircraft. Throughout the demonstration the company used the: e Iver3-580 (Northrop Grumman AUV) to display their vehicles ability to sweep for mines, while also displaying their real-time target automated recognition system. Another company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, presented their version of an unmanned underwater vehicle named Proteus. The Proteus is a dual-mode undersea vehicle developed by Huntington and Battelle, the company during the presentation displayed their unmanned underwater vehicle capabilities by conducting a full-kill demonstration on sea bed warfare. During the demonstration the vehicle utilized a synthetic aperture sonar which was attached to both the port and starboard of the craft, which allowed the unmanned underwater vehicle to identify the targets placed underwater and to ultimately eliminate them. Ross Lindman (director of operations at the company's technical solution's fleet support group) stated that "The big significance of this is that we ran the full kill chain"[citation needed]. "We ran a shortened version of an actual mission. We didn’t say, ‘Well we’re doing this part and you have to imagine this or that.’ We ran the whole thing to illustrate a capability that can be used in the near term."[citation needed] The final demonstration for unmanned underwater vehicles was displayed by General Dynamics, the company showcased their cross-domain multi-platform UUV through a theater simulating warfare planning tool. Through the utilization of this simulation, they showed a Littoral combat ship along with two unmanned underwater vehicles. The goal of this exercise was to demonstrate the communication speed between the operator and the UUV. James Langevin, D-R.I., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats, stated in regard to this exercise "What this is all driving to is for the warfare commander to be able to make the decisions that are based on what he thinks is high-confidence input quicker than his adversary can," he said. "That’s the goal — we want to be able to … let them make warfare-related decisions quicker than anybody else out there."[citation needed] These exercises were conducted to showcase the applications of unmanned underwater vehicles within the military community, along with the innovations each company created to better suite these specific mission types.[citation needed]


A major concern with unmanned underwater vehicles is communication. Communication between the pilot and unmanned vehicle is crucial, however there are multiple factors that might hinder the connection between the two. One of the major problems involves the distortion of transmissions underwater, because water can distort underwater transmissions and delay them which can be a very major problem in a time sensitive mission. Communications are usually disturbed due to the fact that unmanned underwater vehicles utilize acoustic waves rather than the more conventional electromagnetic waves. Acoustic wave transmissions are often delayed anywhere from 1–2 seconds because they move more slowly than other types of waves. This is not including environmental conditions that can also hinder communications such as reflection, refraction, and the absorbing of signal. These effect within the water overall scatter and degrade the signal, making this communication system fairly delayed when compared to other communication sources.[15] Another system that utilizes the acoustic waves is within the navigation of these unmanned vehicles, precise navigation is a must for these unmanned vehicles to complete their missions. A popular navigation system aboard these unmanned underwater vehicles is acoustic positioning, which is also faced with the same problems as acoustic communication because they use the same system. The Royal Netherlands Navy has published an article[16] detailing their concerns surrounding unmanned marine vehicles. The Royal Netherlands Navy is strongly concerned with the ability of UUV's to evade detection and complete tasks not possible in manned vessels. The adaptability and utility of Unmanned Underwater vehicles means it will be difficult to predict and counter their future actions.[citation needed] In the last years, projects like TWINBOT are developing new ways of communication among several GIRONA500 AUVs[17]

2016 incidentEdit

On December 16, 2016, a Chinese warship in South China Sea seized an underwater drone that was in the process of being retrieved by the U.S. Navy survey ship USNS Bowditch. A day later, the Chinese Defense Ministry said it will return the drone to the United States. The Pentagon confirmed that and says the drone, used for gathering weather and temperature data, is not armed.[18] The drone was returned several days later.[19]


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  2. ^ "China Navy Reveals New Large Underwater Robot Which Could Be A Game Changer | Forbes". Forbes. 2019-10-01. Retrieved 2020-01-16.
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  4. ^ a b Lin, P., Bekey, G., & Abney, K. (2008). Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics, and Design. Electronic version
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  6. ^ Blueye Robotics (2018-12-19), The Norwegian Navy piloting the Blueye Pioneer underwater drone | Frigate Helge Ingstad, retrieved 2019-02-25
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  9. ^ Barrett, Justine; Chase, Zanna; Zhang, Jing; Holl, Mark M. Banaszak; Willis, Kathryn; Williams, Alan; Hardesty, Britta D.; Wilcox, Chris (2020). "Microplastic Pollution in Deep-Sea Sediments From the Great Australian Bight". Frontiers in Marine Science. 7. doi:10.3389/fmars.2020.576170. ISSN 2296-7745.
  10. ^ Lockwood, Devi (14 April 2020). "This Might Be the Longest Creature Ever Seen in the Ocean". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  11. ^ "Great Barrier Reef: Scientists find reef taller than Empire State Building". BBC News. 28 October 2020. Retrieved 28 October 2020.
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  13. ^ Laschi, Cecilia; Calisti, Marcello (March 2021). "Soft robot reaches the deepest part of the ocean". Nature. pp. 35–36. doi:10.1038/d41586-021-00489-y. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  14. ^ Li, Guorui; Chen, Xiangping; Zhou, Fanghao; Liang, Yiming; Xiao, Youhua; Cao, Xunuo; Zhang, Zhen; Zhang, Mingqi; Wu, Baosheng; Yin, Shunyu; Xu, Yi; Fan, Hongbo; Chen, Zheng; Song, Wei; Yang, Wenjing; Pan, Binbin; Hou, Jiaoyi; Zou, Weifeng; He, Shunping; Yang, Xuxu; Mao, Guoyong; Jia, Zheng; Zhou, Haofei; Li, Tiefeng; Qu, Shaoxing; Xu, Zhongbin; Huang, Zhilong; Luo, Yingwu; Xie, Tao; Gu, Jason; Zhu, Shiqiang; Yang, Wei (March 2021). "Self-powered soft robot in the Mariana Trench". Nature. 591 (7848): 66–71. Bibcode:2021Natur.591...66L. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-03153-z. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 33658693. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  15. ^ Yan, Z.; Wang, L.; Wang, T.; Yang, Z.; Chen, T.; Xu, J. (2018). "Polar Cooperative Navigation Algorithm for Multi-Unmanned Underwater Vehicles Considering Communication Delays". Sensors. 18 (4): 1044. Bibcode:2018Senso..18.1044Y. doi:10.3390/s18041044. PMC 5948495. PMID 29601537.
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  17. ^ Centelles, Diego; Soriano-Asensi, Antonio; Martí, José Vicente; Marín, Raúl; Sanz, Pedro J. (28 August 2019). "Underwater Wireless Communications for Cooperative Robotics with UWSim-NET". Applied Sciences. 9 (17): 3526. doi:10.3390/app9173526.
  18. ^ Blanchard, Ben (2016-12-18). "China to return seized U.S. drone, says Washington 'hyping up'..." Reuters. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  19. ^ "China returns seized US underwater drone". CNN. Retrieved 2017-03-13.

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