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. In this article, a complete guide to unmanned surface vehicles, as well as the future challenges associated with this technology, are covered.
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What is an Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV)?
Unmanned surface vehicles, 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 fall into two categories; remotely operated vehicles and autonomous vehicles. Both types of vehicle function robotically, with observational tools such as cameras and sensors and other measuring equipment.
Humans operate these vehicles from land (in the case of remotely operated surface vehicles) or they move autonomously, offering new possibilities for remote access and Earth observation. Regions of the planet that were once all but inaccessible are now possible to explore.
Extreme environments like freezing locations and treacherous oceans can now be explored with unmanned surface vehicles, helping scientists make significant breakthroughs.
Furthermore, with unmanned surface vehicles, human workers are not being put at unnecessary risk on the frontline in dangerous environments such as the freezing Arctic.
Another important benefit of unmanned surface vehicles is that they can generate their power via renewable sources such as solar, wind or wave energy. This gives industries that adopt unmanned surface vehicles the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint.
Unmanned Surface Vehicles: The Global Market
The global market for unmanned surface vehicles was valued at $700 million in 2021 and is predicted to grow rapidly, at a CAGR of 11.1% until 2027, to reach an estimated value of $1.2 billion. Much of this growth is being driven by the high demand for this technology to monitor water quality, collect ocean data, and address threats to the maritime industry.
The unmanned surface vehicles market is competitive; current key industry players include L3Harris Technologies (US), Fugro (Netherlands), Textron Inc. (US), ECA Group (France), and Thales Group (France).
North America will be the largest region over the next decade and Canada represents the fastest-growing market in the region. The increasing adoption of unmanned surface vehicles in defense applications is an important driver of growth in this region.
Applications of Unmanned Surface Vehicles
Compared with traditional marine vessels, unmanned surface vehicles are relatively simple and low-cost. For environmental research, these systems 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, unmanned surface vehicles 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, unmanned surface vehicles 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.
The Commercial Landscape of USVs
Unmanned surface vehicles 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 unmanned surface vehicles for offshore operations to aid geological surveys and better understand the seabed. In recent news, we can see that Fugro is expanding its unmanned surface vehicle fleet by co-designing the 'Blue Prism™', a naval unmanned surface vehicle for autonomous and sustainable geophysical surveys.
This will expand to Fugro’s ‘Blue Shadow’, an unmanned surface vehicle 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 its 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.
The Challenges to Face
In a study published at Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers commented how the uptake of unmanned surface vehicles has been limited due to low consumer confidence and barriers from legal and regulatory frameworks. Increased investment and understanding of these technologies could allow unmanned surface vehicles 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 unmanned surface vehicle applications to gauge how government, academia and industry sectors use the technology, and the drivers behind their uptake. Over 1,000 unmanned surface vehicle-related publications were analyzed, having been searched through the Web of Science. As a result, the authors commented that “low cost was a consistent and central driver for unmanned surface vehicle uptake across the three sectors. Product ‘compatibility’ and lack of ‘complexity’ appear to be major factors limiting unmanned surface vehicle technological diffusion amongst early adopters.”
Overall, the authors conclude that unmanned surface vehicles 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 unmanned surface vehicles, but few examples are suited to these needs.
If unmanned surface vehicles can be implemented under the existing governance framework and multinational organizations, and investment in the technology is made, unmanned surface vehicles can be advanced and applied at greater scales. This would boost our ability to understand the planet and also protect those most vulnerable to coastal problems.
In addition, there is a need for collision avoidance systems to safely navigate unmanned surface vehicles, particularly in aquatic environments.
There remain some complex technical challenges to be faced in realizing the potential of unmanned surface vehicles 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 many applications, particularly research, must meet strict technical demands and accuracies if they can be considered reliable.
References and Further Reading
(2022) Autosubs [Online]. National Oceanography Centre.
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
(2022) Fugro expands its USV fleet with the development of the Blue Prism™ For autonomous and sustainable geophysical surveys [Online] Fugro. Available at: https://www.fugro.com/news/business-news/2022/fugro-expands-usv-fleet-blue-prism-autonomous-sustainable-geophysical-surveys
(2022) Hydrographic surveys [Online]. Fugro. Available at: https://www.fugro.com/expertise/hydrographic-surveys
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
Unmanned Surface Vehicles Market by type [online]. Available at: https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/unmanned-surface-vehicle-market-220162588.html
This article was updated August 2023.