Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) offer navies the flexibility of use, lower implementation costs and improved operational time and safety.

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


The concepts of modularity and flexibility are supported to reduce both the time and cost of modernising in-service ships and adapt to future uncertainties. Navies consider modular systems as a means to deliver capability, which is leading to a growing demand for modular UUVs designed for multi-missions. Companies, therefore, are designing their UUVs in the modular structure, allowing new technology to be embarked quickly without costly modifications to the host platform.

Test and development centre/organisations

Unmanned maritime vehicles are expected to be used alongside manned combat platforms by the end of the 2020s. Some navies, therefore, require the development of a specialist branch or organisation to develop operation concepts and integrate unmanned maritime vehicles (UMVs) into their fleets.

The US Navy established the Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Squadron-1 (UUVRON-1) for this purpose in September 2017 to enable testing UUVs and developing operational concept for UUVs. The squadron is training with two test vehicles, named LTV 38 and 48, to simulate the light detection unmanned underwater vehicles (LDUUV), and has been working with an extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles (XLUUV) prototype and two Razorbacks that have already delivered.

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. Five Eyes and NATO members have also been testing unmanned/autonomous operation capabilities in the Unmanned Warrior and Autonomous Warrior series exercises to adapt capabilities to future operational requirements and test operational concepts.

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Consequently, these new organisations and exercises will provide insights into key questions, such as which missions the various unmanned vehicles should undertake and how they best fit into the wider naval tactical and operational construct.

3D printing

3D printers have already proved their worth in the aerospace and defence industry, which requires precision engineering to produce high specification parts. Aerospace in particular has seen some of the highest adoption rates across all industries, and the largest players are now transitioning from prototyping to parts manufacturing. Some companies and universities are looking to leverage 3D printing technologies for manufacturing UUVs.

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 unmanned vehicles. Chip manufacturers are expanding the capabilities of system on a chip (SoC) components to combine multiple sensing and processing elements on a single chip.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

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

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). The industrial sector is already proving to be a significant market for unmanned vehicles with AI capabilities, while the service sector companies are also vying for AI-enabled unmanned vehicles to develop new business models.

Maritime swarm technologies

Maritime swarming technology is 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. Metal Shark’s new unmanned vessel, the Long Range Unmanned Surface Vessel (LRUSV), for example, will be able to work in clusters, delivering swarms of attack drones to hit targets at sea and on land.

Quantum technology for underwater communication and navigation

Quantum sensors are increasingly receiving funding for navigation purposes, and the use of quantum for navigation has significant military applications. The quantum inertial sensors allow to continuously estimate an objects’ position, direction, and speed of movement without a requirement for external references.

Global positioning system (GPS) cannot be used in underwater, therefore, submarines and UUVs required a precious inertial navigation system. Quantum navigation could meet this requirement. Quantum sensors can also provide significantly better information about potential naval threats including mines and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

Quantum communication will be a major focus for defence organisations in coming years and a source of significant investment in order to counter advances in quantum cryptanalysis which pose a significant threat to the security of future communication. Quantum technology can be used to communicate with submerged objects such as submarines and UUVs securely.

Anti-collision technology

Anti-collision technologies ensure safer navigation when UUVs 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, inertial sensor, DVL, pressure sensor are used on UUVs to avoid obstacles and navigate safely. The sensors can be used individually or in combination with one another in order to compensate for the weakness of a single sensing application depending on the application format.

Some UUVs also use surface awareness sensors to avoid other marine traffic during communication with the remote operating centre. Leading unmanned surface vessel (USV) and UUV manufacturers are also using these sensors for improved crash control measures. Sonardyne, for instance, released a new high-altitude variant of its SPRINT-Nav hybrid navigation system for USVs and UUVs in February 2021. The new model increases the altitude at which vehicles can work without an external position reference, without compromising accuracy.

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