Autonomous Undersea Vehicles (AUVs), also commonly referred to as Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs), have a history dating back to 1957 with the Special Purpose Underwater Research Vehicle (SPURV) developed by the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory. Academia and special government programs drove the early decades of research but advancements were slow. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, more explosive growth came for the Remotely Operated Undersea Vehicle (ROV) market which had two primary advantages: they were operated via a tether that provided power for the vehicle and man-in-the-loop control.

Table 1. UUV classes defined by the US Navy Master Plan

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, advancements were made under the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sea Grant AUV Laboratory in the design of lower cost, autonomous vehicles that leveraged available technologies in commercial computer processing coupled with lower power ROV sensors. In 1997, Bluefin Robotics spun out of the MIT AUV Laboratory to focus on commercial development of AUVs. Several competing firms also were formed in this time-frame, giving the primary, commercially-spurred market between 15 and 20 years of experience. Several of the large US defense contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman predated this period for AUV development, but their focus was primarily defense and the US Navy’s budgets dropped steeply in the early 2000s for AUV development. The 2000s saw slow but steady growth across the markets which included US and International Defense, Scientific, and Commercial.

Table 2. UUV Mission Areas defined by the US Navy Master Plan
Since the 2010 time-frame, the market has grown significantly as the US Navy released three large ($50M to $100M) multi-year programs for AUVs and oceanographic gliders; commercial oil and gas expanded to deeper fields off South America, Africa, and Asia; and environmental monitoring requirements grew. Further growth is anticipated in the defense markets as the US Navy shifts its focus back toward maintaining open sea lanes from supporting two decades of a land war and as international navies look to expand their maritime capabilities. Earlier this year, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the former head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), credited a countermining exercise in 2012 in which 29 nations participated as a leading reason for Iran to back away from their threats of mining the Straits of Hormuz. On the commercial and scientific front, market growth is driven by increased utilization of ocean resources to support the world’s population growth as energy, natural resources, and food needs increase substantially. Approximately 80% of the world’s population lives in close proximity to the ocean and 90% of its global trade traverses the seas.

The growing demands are illustrated by the many new US and international AUV providers that have entered the market in addition to numerous academic institutions in the past 5 years. At the time of this article, the Autonomous Undersea Vehicles Application Center (AUVAC) catalogs 185 different AUVs from 74 different companies or institutions.

Environmental Challenges

Figure 1. Similar AUV capabilities are required for Commercial (left) and defense (right) applications.
The undersea environment is extreme and has many parallels with space exploration. It’s an expensive environment to operate in as support ship costs can be in the multiple tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. Vehicle systems must be highly reliable as maintaining them remotely can pose challenges for parts and labor and can cause mission downtime leading to extended ship expenses. Temperature extremes can range from hot, on deck pre-deployment in 120 degrees to below zero at depth or in the arctic.

Some of the environmental challenges are much more daunting than space. hours (almost 2000 miles in range) with a heavyweight class AUV. As more large AUVs enter service and become more common, these payload volumes and endurances will extend even further.

The Navy prioritized missions to be accomplished by AUVs shown in Table 2 from the Master Plan. They also mapped how these mission areas would be satisfied by vehicle class. These missions would likely be considered common for other nations developing AUVs for defense applications.

Current Developments

With the growth of the AUV market in the past several years, there has been a healthy mix of production and development efforts in both commercial and defense. One unique class of vehicle that has emerged is a hybrid AUV/ROV that combines the traditional AUV capabilities with thin fiber optic tethers that allow for real-time data transfer and manual intervention similar to ROVs (Figure 2).

In 2011, Bluefin Robotics was awarded the production contract for the Mk19 Hull UUV Localization System (HULS). This provided an AUV capability to the Navy for inspection of ship hulls for mines or contraband that removed the need to deploy dive teams to inspect ships. The coverage rates were better than what divers could do in turbid waters and the robot could ensure complete coverage of the ship hull. The tether provided real-time access to the streaming sonar imagery in the event the vehicle identified a threat so that divers could then respond. It also provided for manual control of the vehicle to allow the support diver to more thoroughly investigate a target remotely. Bluefin is currently working on adding manipulation to this platform, leveraging the tether for remote operation.