Home / Geopolitics / Militaries race for Unmanned and Autonomous underwater vehicle (UUV & AUV) to dominate the world’s oceans

Militaries race for Unmanned and Autonomous underwater vehicle (UUV & AUV) to dominate the world’s oceans

UUVs—submersible unmanned vehicles—are divided into two categories: remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). ROVs are controlled and powered by a person or crew on either land or neighboring craft via an umbilical or using remote control. The cables enable maneuverability of the ROV, allowing it to travel and perform per the control of a remote operator. It may include built-in sensors for video (camera and lights), thrusters, a flotation pack, sonar, and articulating arms. It may be coordinated to retrieve objects, cut lines, or assist in lifting objects. While a human diver could perform the same functions, an ROV may not only assist a diver, but also go where it would be unsafe for a diver to go.


The truly autonomous AUV systems are typically deployed from a research vessel, they are not tethered to the vessel and do not require direct human control while collecting data. It is often preprogrammed with waypoints and a designated task and when it finishes its mission, it returns to a preprogrammed location. Its data and information is then gathered and dowloaded for further analysis. Modern autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is an intelligent unmanned platform to perform a variety of military and civilian missions in complex marine environment, which can better meet the needs, such as scientific research, military operations and commercial applications.


Their autonomy allows AUVs to be used for missions where a surface vehicle or manned submersible would be at risk, such  under-ice operations or underwater survey missions such as detecting and mapping submerged wrecks, rocks, and obstructions.  Their ability to operate autonomously of a host vessel makes them well suited to exploration of extreme environments, from the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents to beneath polar ice sheets. They have revolutionised our ability to image the seafloor, providing higher resolution seafloor mapping data than can be achieved from surface vessels, particularly in deep water.


UUW and AUVs types and  Missions

UUVs are broken into four classes, based on their displacements. The two larger classes (as defined by the 2004 UUV Master Plan) of Heavy Weight Vehicle (HWV) (21-inch diameter and less than 3000 pounds of displacement) and Large Vehicle (greater than 26-inch diameter and
approximately 20,000 pounds of displacement). Additionally, unmanned  system complexity is a factor of the level of autonomy, which can range between human operated and fully autonomous.


Autonomous underwater robots offer a range of military applications. They are a subset of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) which can include both autonomous and remotely operated UUVs.


The  basic missions of this new type of unmanned submarine are: collecting intelligence, conducting surface search and reconnaissance; reconnaissance of mines, mine countermeasures, inspection and identification,collecting marine tactical data; conducting anti-submarine warfare in coastal shallow waters and payload delivery.  Some AUVs belonging to the largest class can perform attack roles such as anti-submarine warfare and time-critical strikes.


Under concept of Network Centric operations  it will also serve as a network-based operational network node. This enables multiplatform sensor function that is important for the entire fleet to enhance its maritime combat capability.


The US Navy categorises (AUVs) into four classes: man-portable vehicles, lightweight vehicles, heavyweight vehicles, and extra-large vehicles. What are the different classes used for and what kinds of technologies are being developed?


An AUV is a underwater robot that operates in six degrees of freedom (6DOF) and can conduct planned missions by using its own propulsion system controlled by an on board computer. The payload of an AUV includes, beside the CPU and the electro-energetic system, different types of sensors and technology like navigation, system and communication.


Cylinder shaped AUV systems with a diameter of approximately 9in-12in have become a common sight in MCM operations. These systems are typically equipped with side-scan sonar systems and high-grade survey systems. They are launched from small vessels or rigid hull inflatable boats and survey rectangular areas of the seabed in search of objects of interest. The data quality and speed of survey make them the ideal tool for this purpose.


Lightweight autonomous underwater robots usually weigh up to 500lbs (227kg) although many weigh in at around 50kg. They can be launched via small craft such as a rigid-hulled inflatable boat or lowered into the water via a crane attached to a surface vessel. General Dynamics Mission Systems’ Bluefin-12S is a larger lightweight AUV, weighing in at 213kg. It can carry multiple payloads, and perform mine countermeasure actions and unexploded ordnance detection. In terms of speed, ATLAS’s SeaWolf (also called SeaFox) lightweight AUV is more useful for particularly time-sensitive mine disposal operations, with its ability to autonomously travel up to 8kn for around three hours.


The heavyweight types of autonomous underwater robots generally weigh between 5,000kg and 10,000kg, and are used for longer missions that require endurances of 40-80 hours. The US Navy announced recently that it had awarded contracts to Boeing and Lockheed Martin to develop extra-large diameter AUV systems. These systems will replace submarines in many of their missions, deploying from shore and travelling thousands of nautical miles to conduct intelligence gathering, surveys or inspections.


Extra-large diameter AUV systems can be deployed and recovered from shore, so launch and recovery is simpler and they can operate in a much wider set of sea states. They do, however, need a large battery pack and very accurate navigation.


Another future use for these systems in the military domain may be anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations. The persistence of extra-large diameter AUV systems is also attractive for this purpose. They can monitor choke points or work together in the open ocean. Since ageing fleets of ASW vessels are nearing replacement and these AUV systems are seen as a cost-effective force multiplier, they may, in time, become the ASW force.


The Military missions  of UUVs  are generally classified into intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), mine countermeasure (MCM), and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The main reason for the development of this UUV is that there are many military benefits to be gained from asymmetric forces like submarines. There is little chance of being detected by enemies and there are fewer acoustic and magnetic signals because all missions are carried out in underwater. The vessels can be made at a significantly lower cost than the manned submarines, and because it’s unmanned, the size of the vessels can be made significantly smaller as well. Additionally, UUVs can be sent to the hostile and dangerous missions without fear of losing human lives. It can also relieve human operators from monotonous and dull missions. Especially, in case of maritime environment, as the centerstage of combat has changed from ocean to coastal areas, it is difficult for the existing naval forces to effectively operate in shallow waters. Therefore, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are being required at an increasing pace.


Small, torpedo tube-launched UUVs would be ideal to complete an ISR mission. Several of these UUVs would be launched from a submerged submarine and would transition into an area of interest. The lead UUV would surface and extend a mast to collect intelligence data. The other UUVs would act as communication nodes and relay the information to be analyzed onboard back to the submarine.


Group of Large Diameter UUVs (LDUUVs). LDUUVs could be launched from a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to complete a harbor monitoring and tracking ASW mission. Multiple LDUUVs would be launched and recovered from the LCS, while the submarine would remain near the operational area and communicate with the LDUUVs, relaying critical mission data.


However, as it performs missions in underwater, it must operate in a harsh environment under the high ocean current and heavy hydraulic pressure. Despite, the US and other advanced countries of military forces are increasingly developing and operating UUVs capable of the precise underwater navigation. Due to many merits that those UUVs provide, the use of such systems is expected to rise rapidly in the near future. The technology associated with the development of UUVs is also increasingly getting sophisticated.

China, US  and Russia race to employ UUVs and AUVs

Countries including China, US  and Russia are  giving thrust to development of  Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) as they have inherent operational and tactical advantages such as stealth and surprise.


The U.S. Navy is pursuing a new Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept that will help redefine how the Navy fights and operates. Therefore  US Navy wants to procure a number of unmanned drone warships that will operate on the open seas without any sailors. According to the report, the 90-metre, 2,000-tonne, corvette-sized vessels are designed to carry both sensors and weapons.


The US Navy released a UUV masterplan in 2004 that set out nine priority areas for future UUV capabilities. In 2015, Brigadier General Frank Kelly became the first deputy assistant secretary of the US Navy for unmanned systems. In 2016, the Department of Defense reportedly spent US$232.9 million on procuring UUVs (US$86.7 million more than in 2015). In 2018, the US Office of Naval Research awarded Raytheon a US$29.7 million contract for developing a naval prototype of a ‘low-cost UAV swarming technology’, or LOCUST, system that can overwhelm an adversary.


Boeing will build four Orca XLUUVs, based on their Echo Voyager diesel-electric submersible. The 51-foot Orca has a range of 6500 nautical miles and can perform several combat missions, including anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. Thales is among those working on anti-mine autonomous UUVs under a program called “Explainable and Trustable Artificial Intelligence,” designed to enable manned and unmanned systems to make informed decisions in military applications.


In a March 2018 speech to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin highlighted Russian military development of an underwater drone aimed at transforming underwater warfare. According to the Russian “Viewpoint” report, the representative of the Russian United Shipbuilding Group announced that the famous “Malachite” and “Lubin” submarine design bureaus in Russia have begun to develop underwater robots for the fifth generation of submarines. The fifth generation of submarines will carry this underwater robot to perform tasks. When performing a mission, it will leave the submarine to monitor the surrounding environment and gather information. The underwater robot can also carry torpedoes to attack.


Russia will launch its first nuclear-powered submarine capable of carrying the nuclear-capable underwater drone ‘Poseidon,’ alternatively referred to as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), or simply an intercontinental-range, nuclear autonomous torpedo, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sea trials of the Posedon UUV were reportedly successfully completed.


A RAND Corporation report, Emerging trends in China’s development of unmanned systems, said Beijing had been funding 15 different universities for research programs for UUVs. Reports indicate that China is also developing low-cost unmanned UUVs for a variety of military applications, including ‘suicide’ attacks on enemy vessels.


In a July 2018 interview with the South China Morning Post, Lin Yang, director of a classified program at the Shenyang Institute of Automation in Shenyang, China, says her country has plans to develop new-generation military underwater robots by 2021. His 912 Project’s goal is to develop AI-driven unmanned submarines to handle surveillance, mine laying, and attack missions. Western China-watchers say the Chinese navy has several AI-enabled vessels in development including 100-foot long extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles (XLUUVs) intended for deployment early in the next decade.


The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) showed off an underwater drone at China’s National Day parade rehearsal that suggests the People’s Liberation Army Navy has built up its anti-submarine warfare capability, observers said. The unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was seen draped in naval camouflage on a six-wheeled transporter during a rehearsal for the parade. Like many UUVs, this drone has a torpedo-shaped body and tail fins, but at about a metre (3.2 feet) in diameter and more than five metres long, it is unusually big.


But the development of this large UUV means China has been paying a lot of attention to the growth of its anti-submarine warfare capability, according to Collin Koh, research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “[It] could pose a challenge to prospective adversaries such as the US Navy and allied underwater activities in waters near the Chinese coast, such as the East China Sea and South China Sea,” Koh said.


The Indian Navy is looking now to acquire 15 ‘high endurance’ AUVs (HEAUV) capable of missions lasting a minimum of 15 days. The navy wants the option of plugging in sensors and devices to the robotic submarines that will kit them up for missions that must include anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance and oceanographic data gathering.



Chinese AUVs

China unveiled their first large-displacement Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) at the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing on 1st October. The new UUV is approximately the same size as the US Navy’s LDUUV projects suggesting that it is large enough to carry smaller UUVs or, potentially, sensors or mines.


The design appears to be intended primarily for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). It features twin screw-back propellers suggesting that it is optimized for slow speed cruising relatively near the surface (as opposed to a deep-diving AUV). It has both vertical and horizontal thrusters both fore and aft. The spikes on the top of the hull are for launch and recovery. There appear to be external stores mounting points (‘hard points’) either side of the hull.


China has been steadily upgrading its AUVs in terms of reaching deep ocean depths and capabilites. In 2015, Shenyang Institute of Automation (SIA), developed SIA-4500 AUV that could  dive to 4500 meters (hence name), and deploy a magnetic anomaly detector.


Qianlong I AUV is  deep-diving AUV capable of 6000 meters for near-bottom topography measurement, undersea photography and hydrological parameter measurement. Developed gtom the earlier CR01 and CR02 deep-sea underwater vehicles, reportedly used for seabed manganese nodule detection. Arrangement generally similar to Russian Klavesin (Harpsichord) AUVs.


In 2019, China has developed a long-range underwater drone designed to extend the range of its activities in the South China Sea. The torpedo-shaped drone, which is about three metres long and weighs 200kg (441lbs), is equipped with artificial intelligence technology and a wide range of sensors to detect temperature, salinity, current, trace chemicals, underwater visibility and biological activity.


China’s autonomous submersible scripts new diving record of 7,709 meters

A full-ocean depth autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) developed by China’s Harbin Engineering University (HEU) dived to a depth of 7,709 meters in a recent deep-sea trial, setting a new record for the country’s autonomous submersibles, the Science and Technology Daily reported in Aril 2021.


The AUV, named Wukong, had carried out the third phase deep-sea trial of the HEU Key Research Program on Full Ocean Depth AUV in February and March, and returned to Qingdao in east China’s Shandong Province on Thursday. In its last dive on March 21, Wukong reached the designed depth above the seafloor and cruised for three hours and 15 minutes, taking 1,543 pictures and shooting 144 minutes of video footage. It reached the maximum depth of 7,709 meters, only second to the record set by Russian AUV Vityaz-D. In the previous two missions of deep-sea trial, Wukong had reached depths of 5,016 meters and 6,656 meters, respectively.


A part of China’s key plan to research and develop deep-sea technology and equipment, this program was jointly operated by the State Key Laboratory of Underwater Robot Technology in HEU, the Shenyang Institute of Automation and the Institute of Oceanology both affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and China’s National Deep Sea Center.



Market growth

The global unmanned underwater vehicles market size was worth USD 2.96 billion in 2018 and   is projected to reach USD 7.53 billion by the end of 2026.  This is largely due to increasing demands for commercial subsea construction-related applications, including surveys, seabed mapping and pipeline inspections. They also became useful for underwater infrastructure construction and inspections in the offshore oil and gas industries—today, the largest ROVs can dive as deep as 20,000 feet. Ever-increasing energy needs have led to emerging wind and solar power markets, generating additional underwater infrastructure needs.


Even so, the governing legal regime for UUVs remains uncharted while the international community is just now skimming the surface of regulatory waters, with a focus on autonomous surface ships. The growth of this market can be attributed to factors such as the growing importance of more reliable security measures worldwide and the increasing offshore oil & gas production. The increasing product applications in the defense sector will provide impetus to market growth.


The emergence of COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill. There are some industries that are struggling and some are thriving. Overall, almost every sector is anticipated to be impacted by the pandemic, according to report. Rising support from governments and several companies can help in the fight against this highly contagious disease. 


Unmanned underwater vehicles are automated vehicles that operate under water. They are used for numerous marine as well as research and survey applications. The increasing use of these products in applications such as survey and research in the oil and gas industry will emerge in favor of the growth of the overall market. The growing demand for oil and natural gas will create a subsequent demand for unmanned underwater vehicles across the world. The presence of several large scale companies, coupled with the massive investments by these companies will create several platforms for market growth.


The emphasis on the development of low-energy consuming vehicles by government as well as private organizations will aid the growth of the overall market in the coming years. Moreover, technological advancements have played a vital role in the growth of the market, accounting to their applications across numerous industry verticals. The market growth is driven by advances in technology, miniaturization, improved endurance, and enhanced payloads.


Advances in UUV tech such as higher-resolution cameras, better manipulator arms and more sensitive sonar have reduced the time needed to locate and inspect items, consequently opening an ocean of other markets. Constructing bridges, piers, off-shore mooring buoys, ferry lanes and highways often occurs in the littoral (nearshore) area. Bridges sometimes house gas, electrical, communications and other utilities, and require routine maintenance, inspection and continuous oversight. UUVs can inspect the deepest water under these structures, providing data that enables the construction industry in ways never before possible. A prime example, the Blueye Pioneer, is equipped with powerful LED lights, a high definition fixed camera and four thrusters that cut through low-visibility water with agile maneuvering. The benefits of these “underwater eyes” include quick startup, portability, minimal training, easy operation/control and low vehicle maintenance.


Large AUVs can operate at a depth of more than 1,000 meters and are widely used for hydrographic exploration, deep ocean search, and deep water surveys. The AUVs intended for exploration activities in deep waters are specifically used for deep water mapping and surveying applications, including pipe surveys for the oil & gas sector. There is a growing demand for new energy sources worldwide, which can be met with the help of large AUVs as this type of AUVs can reach great depths underwater.


Among all the payloads that can be mounted on an AUV, cameras held the largest share of the AUV payload market in 2016. However, the market for sensors is expected to grow at the highest rate between 2017 and 2023. The growth of the market for sensors can be attributed to the increasing adoption of sensors in scanning, detecting, mapping, and remote sensing applications.


Among these regions, the market in North America currently holds the highest UUV market share. The increasing use of ROVs in several countries across North America will aid the growth of the regional market. Moreover, emphasis on developing efficient ROVs for underwater surveys for oil and gas extraction will provide impetus to market growth. As of 2018, the market in North America was worth USD 948.8 million and this value is likely to increase further in the coming years. Besides North America, the market in Asia Pacific will also witness significant growth in the coming years driven by the increasing investment in UUVs used in the defense sector by major economies such as China, India, and Japan. The market in Europe will also witness considerable growth due to the presence of several large scale companies such as Kongsberg Maritime and Saab Group.


The increasing adoption of AUVs for military & defense applications in the US is driving the growth of the AUV market in North America.  The rising need for energy, along with the high GDP growth rate, in developing countries in APAC, such as China and India, is creating huge opportunities for manufacturers of AUVs in this region.


The AUV market ecosystem comprises AUV manufacturers, such as Kongsberg Maritime (Norway), Teledyne Gavia ehf. (Iceland), Bluefin Robotics (US), ECA Group (France), Saab AB (Sweden), Fugro (Netherlands), ATLAS ELEKTRONIK GmbH (Germany), L3 OceanServer (US), Boston Engineering Corporation (US), Hydromea SA (Switzerland), and International Submarine Engineering Ltd. (Canada), which offer AUVs to end users. It also includes payload suppliers, such as EdgeTech (US), SONARDYNE INTERNATIONAL LTD. (UK), Rowe Technologies, Inc. (US), EvoLogics GmbH (Germany), and KRAKEN SONAR INC. (Canada).



Maritime Zones

The seminal treaty, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), defines State rights and responsibilities with respect to the world’s oceans. The U.S. has signed, but not ratified, this treaty. The keystone of UNCLOS is freedom of the seas.

To ensure this, UNCLOS created maritime zones. Domestic law is critical to operations in inland waters, territorial seas and, in many respects, in the EEZ and on the high seas. A nation’s most robust authority lies within a country’s internal waters and the territorial sea that extends 12 nautical miles (nm) from its shores. Claims reach out to the contiguous zone (24 nm), the up-to-200-mile-out exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the high seas, which offer different levels of national control and freedom of the seas.

For the undersea construction industry, the EEZ is especially important. There, coastal States have the exclusive right to construct and to authorize and regulate the construction, operation and use of, among other things, installations and structures for economic purposes and those that may interfere with coastal State rights (UNCLOS Art. 60).

Another key international regime providing for the safe navigation of ships is the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea of 1972 (COLREGs). Applicable to the high seas and navigable waters, it is codified in U.S. law at 33 U.S. Code §§ 1601-1608.COLREGs are applicable on waters outside of established navigational lines of demarcation.

All these legal obligations can seem as clear as murky waters on a dark day, further muddled by the fact that maritime legal regimes were created for surface ships, submarines and aircraft with humans on board. currently the rules and regulations of UUW in respect of responsibilites, collision prevention requirements,COLREGs etc are not laid down yet.




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