An Introduction to Underwater Drones

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Since 2015, the consumer drone market has grown at a blistering pace, with some forecasters predicting it will hit a market value close to $17 billion by 2020. One of the drivers behind this breakneck growth is the nascent subcategory of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV), also known as underwater drones. In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about this exciting new technology.

History

Although they’ve just recently hit the mainstream market, UUVs have been around for quite some time. Initially designed as military mine-sweepers, UUV usage later expanded to include industrial purposes and subsea construction. Recently, though, following the unprecedented success of consumer aerial vehicles, UUVs have expanded into the consumer tech space. They are still used for military-industrial applications, but for the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus largely on the consumer side.

Acronyms Ad Nauseam

Like aerial drones, which are categorized under multiple names and acronyms (UAV, UAS, etc.), underwater drones have more than one designation. Already mentioned is UUV, which, again, stands for Unmanned Underwater Vehicle and denotes just that—any underwater craft that can operate beneath the water without direct human input. UUV is often used as a general term that encompasses two subcategories of drones: Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). However, it is worth noting that some industry members use UUV interchangeably with AUV, arguing the “unmanned” designation to mean free from all human input, even remotely. The final type of UUV is a subset of the AUV classification, known as a Diver Propulsion Device (DPV); it’s also referred to as a Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV), Underwater Propulsion Vehicle (UPV), or underwater scooter. There is some debate as to whether DPVs merit inclusion in the UUV category since some, technically, are “manned,” but because of their role in the development of so-called “true” AUVs, and because they are so often mentioned in the same breath as other underwater drones, it’s worth including them.

ROV

Diving deeper into the three main types of UUVs, let’s first take a closer look at ROVs. This is the device that begot the category, the one first used by naval military forces to retrieve torpedoes and clear out underwater mines. The hallmarks of its design are a submersible unmanned mobile body that’s capable of operating underwater and controlled via tether by a single person or crew somewhere on land or neighboring vessel. A great example of a consumer ROV is the Power Vision PowerRay, which features all the hallmarks of an ROV and offers a positive overall performance (read more about it here).

Power Vision PowerRay Wizard Underwater ROV Kit
PowerRay Wizard Underwater ROV Kit

AUV

Different from ROVs, AUVs are, as the name implies, autonomous. They are unmanned, operating without tether or other type of continuous human input. Instead, AUVs are often preprogrammed with objectives before their deployments. For example, an AUV can be programmed to travel autonomously to a specified location via GPS and then perform a designated task (sensor readings, land survey, data, etc.). Though they’ve been used in industrial and military settings, consumer AUVs haven’t seen the same market explosion as ROVs, but their time is coming, especially if you consider DPVs to be a true subset of the category (more on that later). What’s hindered growth of the AUV segment more than anything is the available technology, specifically the limitations inherent to underwater communications. However, as that technology improves, we should start seeing a larger influx of these devices into the market. Look for tether-free AUVs, capable of autonomously tracking divers and other underwater targets, to hit consumer marketplace very soon.

DPV

As we mentioned earlier, consumer DPVs get some pushback when you try to include them in the UUV conversation because, strictly speaking, many of them are meant to be manned. That argument aside, DPVs are widely held to be a subclass of AUVs, because they typically don’t require additional input from the user. Look at the Sublue WhiteShark Mix, for example, an underwater scooter that allows users to glide through and below the water without having to operate controls continuously. This type of UUV is becoming more and more prevalent in the market, and their budding popularity is a big reason for underwater drones’ continued growth.

Sublue US WhiteShark Mix Underwater Scooter

Applications

Now that we know the different types of UUVs, we can talk about what they’re used for. All three variants of UUVs have professional and hobbyist applications. ROVs, for example, can be used for underwater photography and cinematography, exploration, and fishing. Additionally, they’re fun to just drive around in the water, making them great for kids and hobbyists. AUVs and DPVs, too, can be used for underwater imaging, and, because they don’t operate via tether, these devices present more deep-sea opportunities. In lieu of remote operation, DPVs offer users the ability to glide through the water, which, by itself, is a fun activity for all ages.

Outlook

The future of underwater drones appears bright, as both demand and adoption continue to grow. Those factors, coupled with advancing technologies, which should lower costs, drive innovation, and increase availability, suggests this burgeoning segment will soon represent a significant share of the overall consumer drone market.

Questions about underwater drones? Sound off in the Comments section. Additional points if you include your favorite Sealab 2021 quote.

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