Autonomous underwater vehicles have changed ocean exploration forever

In just the last couple of years, we’ve been discovering more about the deep seas than ever before—and much of this is thanks to the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV).

An AUV is essentially an underwater drone. Able to perform its tasks without being tethered to the surface or needing a human operator, AUV platforms are revolutionizing how scientists and researchers scan and study the sea.

It’s with an AUV that two companies specializing in maritime archeology and seabed discovery, SEARCH Inc. and Ocean Infinity, were able to find the USS Nevada, the famed “unsinkable” ship which now sits three miles below in the Pacific Ocean. Finding shipwrecks isn’t all the AUV is good for. So far, they’ve been used to identify stingrays and sea turtles, follow jellyfish, and hunt invasive crown-of-thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef.

So, what makes an AUV so useful? To start with, an AUV can stay under the water longer than any human outside of a full-size submarine. AUVs also require no tow cable or tether; drop it off the side of a boat, and it will start exploring the area around it using its acoustic sensors. For some applications, an AUV can eliminate the need for an expedition altogether. By deploying underwater drones from the shore, researchers can explore the ocean without fear of weather conditions — or risk of contracting COVID-19 in tight ship’s quarters, a new concern of late. 

Ultimately though, the biggest benefit of the AUV is that it has made deep sea exploration exponentially cheaper. Economics is a key concern for ocean-based research, says Jim Bellingham, director of the Center for Marine Robotics. Want to do something at sea that you routinely do on land? Take the cost and multiply it by a factor of ten. 

“If you want to then go and do it in the deep ocean? Multiply again, probably by a factor of 100,” Bellingham says. With the AUV, suddenly it’s possible to explore the deep sea, capture footage, collect data, and much more without needing a human or extensive technology to support it.

The future of deep sea exploration is right now—and it’s truly exciting to see.

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