What's driving interest in autono-mous underwater vehicles (AUVs)?
Over the past decade the technology has proven itself to be a cost-effective, efficient platform for subsea data collection. They've been used in the defense market for mine countermeasures, clearing ports and harbors, and infrastructure protection. We currently have a developmental program with the U.S. Navy building a mine countermeasure mission module for the Littoral Combat Ship.
What are some of the challenges in designing AUVs?
You're working at extreme pressures in an underwater environment. That requires us to use pressure housing, special underwater connectors, and other techniques designed to work in a harsh environment. The other aspect of it is that communications to the vehicle are extremely low bandwidth and intermittent. Therefore, the amount of sophistication needed on the vehicle to deal with transient or unexpected conditions is higher than is typically found on other unmanned vehicles.
What are the trends in autonomous underwater vehicle technology?
There are three trends in AUV technology. One trend from the military is the push for longer endurance. The military is desiring vehicles that can run for months at a time, separating the AUV entirely from the surface ship or other tending vehicle. This will enable them to transit long distances into areas, to operate in those areas, and then transit back. There is an increased drive towards more autonomy, and more sophisticated behavior from the vehicles. Today's vehicles can go out and collect data and return. Tomorrow's vehicles [will] go out, collect data, and, based upon that data, change their mission to perform different actions and provide a more general, sophisticated capability.
Are any developing technologies being researched to achieve greater endurance?
In the area of endurance, some new battery technologies are being researched for applications in this space. The other arena of that is fuel cell technology, which is an active area. Multiple projects are working on it, which would enable greater energy to be carried on the vehicles for week- and month-long missions.
Do you have any market predictions for AUVs in 2013 and beyond?
I think we'll see slow, steady, continued growth in the market. The early adopters have proven the technology. I think both the defense and commercial realm are seeing a move toward a broader adoption of the technology and a press for new capabilities. If you compare the market overall to air or ground vehicles, it is a much smaller market. It is a challenging environment to work in, and so I think what we'll see is a steady, continued growth, and an increase in applications the vehicles will be used for in the defense and commercial industries.
For more on autonomous underwater vehicles, view the Last Word Video Supplement online at http://bit.ly/Rn0uzc.
NAME: David Kelly
CO.: Bluefin Robotics
ROLE: Bluefin Robotics designs, builds, and operates autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and related technology for defense, scientific, commercial customers.