Man has always been looking at finding ways and means to do dangerous stuff safely. A lot of activities which we do as routine or for fun and thrill can get dangerous. Let us take simple things like riding a bike or driving a car to office and back. Though everyday commute is usually boring, it can get dangerous like skidding the bike on a rainy day or tailgating your car into another which braked suddenly to save the guy on the bike which skidded. To make these dangerous activities like commuting to work safer, we invented the helmet, riding gear and boots for the bike rider. For the car drivers we designed crumple zones into the car and invented seat belts. However, some people do much more dangerous activities as their daily job, like flying a reconnaissance aircraft to gather enemy intelligence or flying a fighter aircraft into defended enemy locations or lurking around in a submarine for months to find out what the bad guys are up to. How do we make these activities safer? For the reconnaissance activity we invented the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Then to make attacking enemy targets safer we went ahead and put weapons in the UAV to make the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). Now it was the turn of the naval guys to make their activities safer.
Then came the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) which were basically underwater robots controlled remotely to undertake dangerous naval activities like finding and defusing mines. However, the physics of air and water are very different. Whereas in air you can use electromagnetic waves to communicate with the UAV in real time and with large bandwidth for both controlling the UAV and communicating with it as well as transferring data collected by it, the same is not possible in water. The bandwidth of sound waves, which are the primary means of communicating in water is very small. So we needed a tether to control the ROV. This limited the range at which the ROV could be operated and hence reduced the safety provided to humans for the various activities for which ROVs were to be used.
Then came the autonomous technology and Artificial Intelligence, and man decided to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle which could be programmed to undertake a certain mission, it could make necessary changes and decisions on the spot to execute the mission safely and effectively and had a long enough range to protect humans from dangers. It is an intelligent means of transport that can carry mission specific hardware or can be used for such mundane activities like carrying stuff mined undersea to surafec to clearing mines. Hence, we have, both commercial as well as military AUVs.
The commercial AUVs are used in the oil and gas sector for inspecting, maintaining and repairing offshore pipes, underwater systems etc which was till now done by deep sea divers. On the military front they can be used for surveillance and gathering intelligence, detecting and defusing mines, establishing the sea water thermal profile for submarine operations, for anti-submarine warfare or for mapping the sea beds. They have ranges varying from a few hours to a few weeks and can sustain independently for the period.
An AUV basically comprises a hull frame which is used to mount the various sensors and other hardware required for it to navigate and undertake its mission. It has a propulsion package which may be a battery pack for short range AUVs to fuel cells or solar charging systems for longer range AUVs. They may have a conventional motor – shaft – propeller arrangement for smaller AUVs to multiple propulsor electric propulsion system. They carry necessary computing hardware and software which allow the entire mission to be programed plus artificial intelligence to take necessary decisions when required.
A typical surveillance mission for an AUV may involve traveling to an allocated location using GPS and inertial navigation system (INS). Waiting there, collecting various data like the variation in temperature, the number of ships passing the location or the activities of enemy navy ships in the area using both cameras and other electronic surveillance methods. Then, at per-determined periods, coming to the surface and transmitting the collected data using a satellite communication system and diving back and/ or moving to the next allocated location. Repeating the activity till end of mission and then traveling back to base.
These machines vary in size from as small as a torpedo to a few tonnes which can be transported using a 40 feet commercial container. They can be launched from shore or from a mother ship as required. Several countries are developing such vehicles. Some of the largest names in aerospace and defence industry have developed these next generation of warriors which make human life safer while keeping the world safe for us.