As Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) are deployed for more sophisticated naval missions, the degree of human control over them is progressively decreasing. When autonomous systems start to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) developments fully, USVs will become increasingly capable. They could execute more complex missions, with increased autonomy and their own support packages.

Defence and Technology Trends

Listed below are the key defence and technology trends impacting the USV theme, as identified by GlobalData.


Navies consider modular systems as a means to deliver capability. In this context, there is a growing demand for modular USVs designed for multi-missions. Therefore, companies design their USVs in the modular structure, allowing new technology to be embarked quickly without costly modifications to the host platform.

Growing demand for small-sized USVs for non-lethal mission

The great majority of USVs are smaller than 14m. Therefore, they have low radar, infrared, acoustic, and magnetic signatures. In addition, the growing proliferation of stealth technology will enable USVs to be less detectable.

Most of today’s USVs are designed for primary non-lethal missions, such as survey, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and mine countermeasures (MCM). In particular, small vehicles such as very small USVs (VSUSVs), small USVs (SUSVs) and gliders are better suited to single type missions, such as hydrographic survey and ISR missions. Because of the legal issues or not having mature and tested autonomy systems, very few USVs are equipped with weapon systems and are currently controlled by operators.

Test and development centre/organisations

Unmanned maritime vehicles are expected to be used alongside manned combat platforms by the end of the 2020s. Therefore, some navies require the development of a specialist branch or organisation to develop operation concepts and integrate unmanned maritime vehicles (UMVs) into their fleets. For this purpose, in May 2019, the US Navy established a surface development squadron (SURFDEVRON ONE) to help develop operational concepts for large USVs (LUSV) and medium USVs (MUSV).

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By FY2023, SURFDEVRON will operate four Overlord USVs, a Sea Hunter and a sister ship Sea Hawk, and an L3Harris’s prototype MUSV. Similarly, the UK Royal Navy established NavyX, the Royal Navy’s new Autonomy and Lethality Accelerator, to rapidly develop, test and trial cutting-edge equipment to get new technology off the drawing board and into operation.

Mothership concept

Many navies have assigned surface ships, such as the US (LCS and Zumwalt, Spearheadclass EPF), Russia (Project 22350), Japan (30FFM) and Singapore (Littoral Mission Vessels) as motherships for unmanned maritime vehicles. Moreover, the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and South Korea are actively working on this concept.

Processor chips

Microprocessors serve as the control centres for unmanned vehicles, providing a platform for control and communications software that integrates with collision avoidance sensors, high definition cameras, and other sensors. Advances in chip design, driven in large measure by the mobile phone industry, are leading to smaller chips with higher performance and lower cost, which in turn helps to drive down the manufacturing cost of drones.


The growing volume of data gathered by unmanned vehicles will create demand for increasingly sophisticated analysis of that data. To effectively process incoming sensor data and draw meaningful conclusions, unmanned vehicles solutions need to make use of the latest data analytics technologies.

Additionally, AI enables ‘continued learning’ for unmanned vehicles through machine learning techniques to enable complex capabilities such as autonomous navigation and obstacle recognition and avoidance based on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 (COLREGs).

Maritime swarm technologies

Maritime swarming technology is speedily attracting the attention of naval forces globally. Networked unmanned maritime assets are a key future tool for surveillance, data gathering, decoying, protecting high-value units and ports, minesweeping, detecting submarines and limiting capital ship exposure, as well as neutralising or destroying enemy assets.

Platform power source

USV power sources vary according to their size and design purposes. They can be powered using diesel, gasoline, hybrid electric, battery and renewable energy. Except for some VSUSV platforms, diesel or gasoline engines are preferred to batteries because of their higher instantaneous power output and resulting ability to enable higher maximum speed. However, using such engines brings an additional complication. With no manned operators on board, USVs using diesel or gasoline engines require additional machinery-control autonomy features to start, stop, and change engine operating speeds on the fly. This requirement adds complexity to system control features.


Initial payloads for USVs are communication devices to coordinate between vehicles and other manned or unmanned platforms and provide remotely collected ISR data to a processing or decision-making authority.

Camera and optical sensors are also the main sensors for remotely controlled vehicles. They enable the user to carry out rapid environment assessment and avoid a collision. Sonars including single beam, multibeam, sidescan, and synthetic aperture sonars are the main sensors for underwater and are crucial for MCM, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and survey operations. Radars are used for navigation, target detection and identification and targeting purposes.

USV Conversion Kit

USV Conversion Kit allows autonomous control of any marine manned vehicle, turning it into an USV to keep humans from a dangerous environment and fulfil missions cost-effectively. The system includes the Vehicle Control Station, Communication and On-Board Systems. The conversion kits can offer highly customised solutions to meet client’s requirements. These kits will most likely be utilised to convert manned vehicles performing repetitive and dangerous missions in the near future.

Anti-collision technology

Anti-collision technologies ensure safer navigation when USVs are used in a zone where maritime traffic is dense and benefits autonomous navigation in restricted areas. Different types of sensors, such as vision sensors, sonar, Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), infrared, radar are used on USVs to avoid obstacles and navigate safely. In order to compensate for the weakness of a single sensing application, these sensors can be used individually or in combination with one another, depending on the application format.

This is an edited extract from the Unmanned Surface Vehicles – Thematic Research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.