In 1977, the exploration vessel Alvin dove 2,500 meters below the ocean waves enabling geologists to observe directly, for the very first time, the strange lifeforms that swarm around the super-hot vents at the planet's mid-ocean ridges. Forty years later, new forms of extraordinary creatures patrol these depths. Employed in mine hunting, hull inspection, port patrol, environmental monitoring, and many other functions, underwater unmanned vehicles (UUVs) are now so numerous and diverse in their design and mission that the United States has developed a technology roadmap — now in its third version — to integrate the technology into conventional warfighting and peacetime missions.

Worldwide, demand for UUV units is expected to grow by 49 percent from 2016 to 2020 (of which 73 percent are expected to be used in the military, but there is rapid growth in the oil and gas sector). Some of the propulsion and mobility designs are borrowed from the natural world, and many look more like torpedoes. Fuel cells have increased UUV range and even traveling at a leisurely 2 knots, most types can roam far from their launch vessel or the shoreline, easily reaching the 12-mile nautical limit and beyond.

While research teams and commercial firms have succeeded in improving power and maneuverability, the laws of physics still constrain communications: high-speed wireless "underwater internet" of the type that is now pervasive in the world's cities is still just theory. Without a cable, data just doesn't transmit easily through water (even less so when it is salt water).

But the technology is developing very fast. Experiments in the Baltic and North Sea in 2006 showed that UUV control signals will transmit at just 100 bits/s via acoustic channels. A survey published by RAND in 2009 recommended seven military missions for UUVs and reviewed the systems required to enable them. Rapid technical advances in onboard sensors and communications fill the agendas of an international annual conference and the product catalogs of commercial companies both large and small worldwide.

Acoustic communications networks are the preferred channel and work well over short distances, yet they are vulnerable to attack and can easily be jammed. The NATO STO 2016 Underwater Communications and Networking conference discussed the near-term challenges and current state-of-art, such as work by an Italian team who have developed and commercialized secure underwater wireless communications that attain 10Mb/s at a range of 32 feet, in harbor water conditions.

Read the rest of the piece at OpsLens.

Sally Daultrey is an OpsLens contributor and Geopolitical analyst based in London.

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