Autonomous systems, robotics, and artificial intelligence were once just elements of science fiction. Today, such technologies are transforming operations in a wide range of industries. Unmanned systems, both aerial and surface, have quickly gained popularity in the defence industry.

Autonomous technologies and artificial intelligence models are finding more and more military applications too and are expected to play a vital role in future warfare.

While the maritime industry has been comparatively slow to adopt these technologies, research from data and analytics company, GlobalData, reveals an increasing focus on AI and robotics, with mentions of both in company filings increasing by 20% from 2019 to 2020.


Meanwhile, the total number of jobs advertised by maritime companies in AI and robotics is also on the increase.

The rise of unmanned surface vessels

The industry is evolving and diversifying, and the rising popularity of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) is one area deserving attention. As the name suggests, USVs are vehicles that operate either remotely, semi-autonomously or autonomously on the surface of the water without a crew. They are controlled from a ground station or mothership.

From small ‘marine drones’, ideal for oceanographic surveys, to larger self-driving ships suitable for naval and law enforcement operations, there is a wide range of vessels available, covering an equally wide set of functions.

As shown in the recent Unmanned Surface Vehicles report from GlobalData, USVs are a key focus of many navies and border security organisations around the world and are seeing increasing deployment.

Three key advantages are driving the demand for crewless vessels: lower costs, longer endurance and reduced risk to human life. Moreover, USVs can use both the water and air for sensing, making them an optimal platform for integrated applications.

Real-world testing of unmanned surface vessels

According to GlobalData, countries are increasing their research and development (R&D) investments and procurements for these vehicles, and many USV programmes are currently in progress.

In recent years, the US Navy has been making distinct efforts to accelerate its large and medium USV initiatives. Its Ghost Fleet Overlord testing programme is currently in its second phase, meanwhile this July the Congressional Research Service released a paper outlining the roles of USVs in the Navy and the status of the nation’s various related programmes.

Across the Atlantic, the UK’s NavyX initiative is focused on expanding the Royal Navy’s use of crewless and autonomous systems, and suggest similar strategies on a somewhat smaller scale.

The role of USVs in ISR and MCM

While USVs can be equipped with weapons, more typical payloads include navigation, sensors and communication. As such, USVs are primarily deployed on non-lethal intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) naval missions.

On these assignments, the unmanned vessel can obtain and transmit vital information while remaining less detectable due to low radar, infrared, acoustic and magnetic signatures.

Another application for USVs is in mine hunting operations such as detection, identification, classification and localization. The UK and France’s joint Maritime Mine Countermeasures (MMCM) programme is one example showing how USVs and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) can be utilised to keep maritime trade safe from mines.

Unmanned surface vessels for coast guard and port authorities

USVs are also being tested out in coastal waters and in ports around the world to support anti-piracy, anti-terrorism, and anti-immigration forces. Due to their long endurance, unmanned vessels can provide a constant patrol of both congested and remote regions.

Last year, the US Coast Guard completed a demonstration and evaluation of USVs off the coast of Hawaii, concluding that the vessels “proved to be very effective across a variety of mission areas.”

In addition, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) is currently trialling fully autonomous vessels with the intention of deploying four USVs for round-the-clock patrols of the country’s waters. RSN believes the USVs will add a further layer of surveillance and operational response to Singapore’s borders.

USVs can also be utilised for search and rescue (SAR) missions. When maritime accidents occur, survival times are short and SAR teams put themselves at danger to save the lives of those involved. Using USV for SAR has clear advantages and may be a growing trend in the future.

As R&D accelerates, USVs will play a very significant role in protecting human operators, securing national waters, and assisting naval missions. Artificial intelligence will drive many advancements, enabling the degree of human control over USVs to gradually decrease.

With such developments, USVs will become a key technology for assignments in uncertain and dangerous marine environments, from reconnaissance missions to mine counter measures, border patrols and emergency responses.

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