Recent developments in unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) have expanded our understanding of what is happening in the ocean and along coasts, showing great promise for research, governance, and commercial landscapes, but what are these innovations, and what makes them so powerful?
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In this article, a complete guide to unmanned surface vehicles, as well as the future challenges associated with this technology, are covered.
Unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), also known as uncrewed surface vessels, are autonomous vessels that operate on surface waters without needing a crew or any human to be on board. They are a type of Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and function robotically, with observational tools such as cameras and sensors, including other measuring equipment.
Being autonomous, humans operate these vehicles from land, which offers new possibilities for access and observation on the planet. Furthermore, humans are not putting themselves at risk on the frontline in dangerous environments such as the freezing Arctic. Another great advantage they have is generating their own power renewably, such as through solar, wind or wave energy.
Compared with traditional marine vessels, USVs are relatively simple and low-cost. For environmental research, USVs can be used for oceanic research, data gathering and environmental monitoring. They can also be utilized in the government sector, such as defense, and they show promise for commercial applications.
For research, USVs provide accurate, high-resolution, continuous data, benefiting all applications. They may effectively replace research vessels for some research programs due to their lower costs and versatility in reaching remote locations near-inhospitable to humans, such as the Arctic.
They could even help to charge other underwater, subsurface vehicles. These include the National Oceanography Centre’s Autosub Long Range Vehicles which gathered environmental data under polar sea ice to better understand how climate change is affecting the ocean. In these remote locations, USVs offer new ways to observe the ocean and our planet, including the effects of climate change and pollution on marine life and ocean water chemistry.
Commercial Landscape of Unmanned Surface Vehicles
USVs can help to regulate industries and provide data for commercial organizations, such as monitoring commercial sea fishing to count fish stocks and mitigate the problem of overfishing, sometimes with the additional help of aerial vehicles or remote sensing.
Subsea and marine companies are using USVs for offshore operations to aid geological surveys and better understand the seabed. In recent news, we can see that Fugro is expanding its USV fleet by co-designing the 'Blue Prism™', a naval USV for autonomous and sustainable geophysical surveys. This will expand to Fugro’s ‘Blue Shadow’, a USV providing accurate data collection for hydrographic surveys, safe navigation and sustainable economic development. With a compact, “wave-piercing” design, it is more weather tolerant and is durable in states of high-sea, plus coastal and offshore settings.
Fugro explains on their website that Blue Shadow was engineered for efficient, flexible, and safer operations, gathering data using high-quality, cutting-edge sensors. The vessel can be used in offshore or coastal areas, with the ability to detect near and far targets for obstacle and collision avoidance, with the help of sensors and 360-degree cameras.
Challenges Faced by Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs)
In a study published at Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers commented how the uptake of USVs has been limited due to low consumer confidence and barriers from legal and regulatory frameworks. Increased investment and understanding of these technologies could allow USVs to reveal their potential for surveillance and data collection, whether for our understanding of the environment or human activity.
Their study conducted a systematic review of USV applications to gauge how government, academia and industry sectors use USVs, and the drivers behind their uptake. Over 1,000 USV-related publications were analyzed, having been searched through the Web of Science. As a result, “low cost was a consistent and central driver for USV uptake across the three sectors. Product ‘compatibility’ and lack of ‘complexity’ appear to be major factors limiting USV technological diffusion amongst early adopters.”
Overall, the authors conclude that USVs that are built for robust ocean surveillance and monitoring will improve ocean management and protection by reducing the costs involved. Currently, there is much interest in USVs, but few USV examples are suited to these needs. If USVs can be implemented under the existing governance framework and multinational organizations, and investment in the technology is made, USVs can be advanced and applied at greater scales. This would boost our ability to understand the planet but also protect those most vulnerable to coastal problems.
There remain some complex technical challenges to be faced with realizing the potential of USVs across the world. These innovations are not entirely rid of human involvement, as people must make important decisions about their operations while also developing, maintaining, and fixing them. Technological involvement is high, as for many applications, particularly research, they must meet strict technical demands and accuracies if they can be considered reliable.
References and Further Reading
National Oceanography Centre. (2022) Autosubs [Online]
Petillot, Y., Antonelli, G., Casalino, G. and Ferreira, F., 2019. Underwater Robots: From Remotely Operated Vehicles to Intervention-Autonomous Underwater Vehicles. IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, 26(2), pp.94-101. https://doi.org/10.1109/MRA.2019.2908063
Fugro (2022) FUGRO EXPANDS ITS USV FLEET WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ‘BLUE PRISM™’ FOR AUTONOMOUS AND SUSTAINABLE GEOPHYSICAL SURVEYS. [Online]
Furgo (2022) BLUE SHADOW - AUTONOMOUS AND UNCREWED SURFACE VESSEL (USV). [Online]
Patterson, R., Lawson, E., Udyawer, V., Brassington, G., Groom, R. and Campbell, H., (2022) Uncrewed Surface Vessel Technological Diffusion Depends on Cross-Sectoral Investment in Open-Ocean Archetypes: A Systematic Review of USV Applications and Drivers. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.736984/full