Autonomous underwater vehicles: The hidden depth and potential of this technology

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Autonomous underwater vehicles: The hidden depth and potential of this technology

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Autonomous underwater vehicles: The hidden depth and potential of this technology

Subheading text
The market for autonomous underwater vehicles is expected to grow rapidly over the 2020s as applications for this tech multiply.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • June 9, 2023

    Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) have been developing since the 1980s, with early prototypes primarily used for scientific research and military applications. However, with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), AUVs can now be equipped with more versatile capabilities, such as increased autonomy and adaptability, making them valuable tools for oceanography and underwater inspections. These advanced vehicles can navigate complex aquatic environments, and collect and transmit data with minimal human intervention.

    Autonomous underwater vehicles context

    AUVs, also known as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), are becoming increasingly important tools in many applications. These vehicles can operate in difficult and dangerous environments, such as deep underwater or in hazardous situations. AUVs can also be used for long-duration operations or rapid response times, such as search and rescue missions or environmental monitoring.

    One of the key advantages of these vehicles is their ability to collect and transmit data in real time, which is essential for scientific research and naval patrols. Additionally, AUVs can be equipped with various sensors, such as sonar, cameras, and water-based devices, which can collect data on water temperature, salinity, currents, and marine life. This information can be used to better understand the marine environment and make more informed decisions about conservation and management.

    AUVs are also increasingly used in the oil and gas industry for pipeline inspection and maintenance. These vehicles minimize the risk of accidents while streamlining operations. They can also be deployed for military applications, such as underwater security patrols and mine countermeasures. China, for example, has been ramping up its AUV and UUV projects since the 1980s for marine surveying and surveillance.

    Disruptive impact

    The development of AUVs is primarily driven by the increasing demand from oil and gas firms, as well as government agencies. As a result, several key players in the industry are actively developing advanced models that can perform complex tasks with greater efficiency and accuracy. In February 2021, Norway-based Kongsberg Maritime released its next-generation AUVs, which can perform missions for up to 15 days. These vehicles are equipped with advanced sensor technology to collect data on ocean currents, temperatures, and salinity levels.

    The military is another crucial sector driving the development of AUV technology. In February 2020, the US Department of Defense awarded a two-year, $12.3 million USD contract to Lockheed Martin, a leading military technology company, to develop a larger unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). Similarly, China has been actively researching AUV technology for military purposes, particularly for detecting the presence of foreign submarines and other aquatic objects across the Indo-Pacific region. Undersea gliders that can dive deeper and go farther are being built for this purpose, and some models are also used in mine-laying to attack enemy ships.

    While AUV technology has many potential benefits, the introduction of AI has raised concerns about the ethical implications of using such technology in warfare. The use of autonomous weapons, commonly referred to as "killer robots," to harm humans and infrastructure is opposed by the majority of United Nations (UN) members. However, countries like the US and China continue to invest heavily in AUV technology to supplement their naval capabilities. 

    Applications for autonomous underwater vehicles

    Some applications for AUVs may include:

    • Larger AUVs with computing functions and advanced sensors being developed to eventually replace submarines.
    • Energy companies relying on AUVs to discover oil and gas underwater, as well as explore and monitor tidal energy.
    • Infrastructure companies using AUVs for the maintenance of underwater essential services, such as pipelines, cables, and offshore wind turbines. 
    • AUVs being used for underwater archaeology, allowing researchers to explore and document underwater archaeological sites without the need for divers. 
    • AUVs being deployed in fisheries management, as they can help track fish populations and monitor fishing activity. 
    • These devices being utilized to monitor the effects of climate change on the ocean environment, such as changes in temperature and sea level rise. This application can help inform climate policy and aid in predicting and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
    • AUVs being used for underwater mining, as they can navigate difficult terrain and collect data on mineral deposits. 

    Questions to consider

    • How else do you think AUVs will be used in the future?
    • How can AUVs affect maritime travel and exploration?

    Insight references

    The following popular and institutional links were referenced for this insight: