Outlook for Maritime Drones in 2020

ROV at work in an underwater oil and gas field. The ROV is operating a subsea torque tool (wrench) on a valve on the subsea structure. (Credit: Oceaneering International)
By Kayla Matthews

Drones that fly above the ground are commonplace today. This technology is bought by hobbyists, deployed by the military and used for crop monitoring by farmers, for example. 

Drones in the water, on the other hand, are extremely valuable but often overlooked in the public eye. 

Here are four likely trends and applications for maritime drones in 2020 that could increase their mark on the world stage.

1. Remote-Operated Vehicles Will Continue to Be Used for Subsea Inspections

Saipem, a contractor in the Italian oil and gas industry, recently received a 10-year contract to use ROVs for subsea equipment checks. One of those vehicles can stay underwater for up to a year and handle both inspections and intervention-type duties. It can also stay connected to submerged communication links for up to a 6-mi. radius. 

Using ROVs like this could gain momentum in 2020 because it enables people on land to see the condition of subsea equipment and assess whether to carry out urgent repairs, which could be safer and more cost-effective than traditional methods. 

2. The Military Will Push to Deploy Unmanned Surface Vehicles

The U.S. Navy seems eager to investigate uses for USVs throughout 2020 and beyond. Despite that interest, members of Congress declined to grant the Navy its requested budget for the technology. 

While Congress did not fail to grant funds entirely, it halved the number of USVs the Navy could purchase under the proposed budget.

The monetary requests came as part of a five-year projection called the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP). The reason for the reluctance by members of Congress may stem from the speed at which the Navy made the request. 

Even though the Navy did not gain all the funding it hoped to acquire, the Navy still seems interested in how the technology could enhance future military operations.

3. ROVs, AUVs and Accompanying Equipment Will Get Smaller

Many technologies used in various industries are significantly smaller than previous versions. The maritime world is no exception. For example, AUVs and ROVs now have smaller internal parts helping them work.

Instrumentation is also becoming smaller. For instance, a company called Water Linked plans to release a Doppler velocity log (DVL) to assist small AUVs and ROVs with staying in place as they carry out intervention work. This piece of equipment only has a 55-mm form factor. Another company called Notilo Plus has an ROV weighing only 9 kg. 

It’s easy to see why smaller underwater drones that can carry instrumentation could increase the number of use cases. 

4. Drones Will Play a Prominent Role in Hurricane Forecasting

Marine scientists are starting to gather data on how hurricanes affect oceans by using underwater drones, such as the Slocum Glider. These devices are AUVs equipped with sensors that further understanding of how storms impact ocean environments. 

The Slocam Gliders do not replace satellite images, but they can fill in gaps for the big picture. Researchers recently used the drones to learn about Hurricane Florence. Next, they want to depend on the technology to create a 3D representation of deep-sea conditions that could give valuable clues about when and where a hurricane will hit. 

The above four trends should continue to develop in 2020. As they do, underwater drones will become more familiar to the public, like their aerial counterparts.


Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and writer. Her work has been featured in WIRED, VentureBeat, InformationWeek and Computerworld. To read more from Matthews, visit her blog, Productivity Bytes

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