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Are Sailing Drones the Next Big Military Weapon?

Saildrone in the San Francisco Bay.

Are Sailing Drones the Next Big Military Weapon?

By Tom Cassauwers

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Self-powered maritime drones could help researchers, companies and militaries monitor the oceans for months.

By Tom Cassauwers

  • Self-powered, autonomous, long-endurance watercraft could revolutionize the work of scientists and militaries in the oceans.
  • From Boeing to the U.S. Navy, corporations and governments alike are spotting the future in seafaring drones.

“I have no idea what it is,” says the captain of the fishing boat when they encounter a strange craft off the coast of Florida. It looks like a black surfboard, with a tower of antennas and transponders mounted on top of it. The craft floats by and then disappears. This video was posted in June of this year on the Facebook page of FishMonster Magazine, a Florida company dedicated to the “fishing, boating and diving lifestyle.”

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What they encountered wasn’t some digital-age variant of the Loch Ness Monster or a secret government experiment. It was a seaborne drone called a Wave Glider, which uses wave and solar energy to stay at sea for months on end, built by the company Liquid Robotics.

It’s just one among a growing set of autonomous, long-endurance watercraft that researchers, companies and militaries are beginning to use. Like the Wave Glider, they are mostly self-powered and use wind, solar or wave power to move themselves. They can stay at sea for more than a year in some cases, floating along and collecting data through a range of sensors.

The U.S. startup Saildrone, which uses wind energy, raised $88 million for its craft, which last year circumnavigated Antarctica in 196 days. Boeing is funding its own foray into the arena through Liquid Robotics, which it bought in 2016. And this year the U.S. Navy announced the opening of $982 million worth of contracts for unmanned surface vehicles.

Unmanned surface vehicles are very much like the satellites of the sea.

Fred Fourie, marine robotics engineer

Military spending is a key driver for this technology, since monitoring the world’s oceans without having to carry sailors could be a game-changing proposition for the Navy. Some countries are going a step further — China last year unveiled an unmanned warship. But these sea drones have more peaceful applications too.

Belgian research institute VLIZ, a British competitor to Liquid Robotics, uses an unmanned wave-propelled vessel called Autonaut to monitor noise from offshore construction and shipping in the North Sea that impacts fish and whales. Governments are eyeing regulations for such noise. “The amount of noise we introduce into the ocean is a big deal,” says Fred Fourie, a South African marine robotics engineer working at VLIZ. “And monitoring is a big part of improving regulations.”

A boom in renewable energy might also drive the technology forward. “One of the most important-use cases is offshore wind farms,” says Dr. Yuanchang Liu, a lecturer at the University College London and an expert in autonomous sea vehicles. “The U.K. and other European countries want to use autonomous boats to monitor and maintain offshore wind turbines.”

Liquid Robotics, one of the biggest players in the space, has so far built more than 500 Wave Gliders. Their endurance depends on specific conditions, but the company recommends maintenance every four to six months. These craft focus on the niche of long-range, long-duration data collection.

This might sound slow-paced, but it could bring in significant economic benefits. Weather forecasts would benefit from improved data from oceans around the world. “Shipping, for example, depends on weather forecasts,” says Graham Hine, CEO of Liquid Robotics. Since much of the world economy transits the ocean, a small improvement in shipping efficiency — even 1 percent to 2 percent — would mean hundreds of millions to billions of dollars of economic gain, he says.

Improved weather data could also benefit everyone from farmers monitoring their crops to governments predicting the next hurricane. “Unmanned surface vehicles are very much like the satellites of the sea,” says Fourie. “You launch them, leave them out, and they remotely collect data.”

Nevertheless, questions remain about the technology’s maturity. “I don’t think the technology is mature enough for large-scale commercialization,” says Liu. He compares autonomous boats to autonomous cars, and notes that the former still lag behind. “Oceans are more complicated than roads,” he adds.

Even though the seas are relatively empty compared to roads, they are unstable. Cameras and sensors used for autonomous cars encounter difficulties when deployed in water-based environments. Finally, the sea is a corrosive, unforgiving environment, and operating these craft for months on end offers a distinct challenge for their batteries, hulls and communication systems. Liquid Robotics even had to face shark attacks.

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The U.S. startup Saildrone, which uses wind energy, raised $88 million for its craft, which last year circumnavigated Antarctica in 196 days.

But Hine remains bullish, though he agrees that the technology still needs to grow. “Autonomous cars are moving along, autonomous aerial vehicles are in use for sometime now, but marine systems are still at an early stage,” he says. “They haven’t hit their exponential growth curve yet.”

That might happen soon. “If you told me 10 years ago that today, AI would be as powerful as it is, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Liu. “Technology will progress very fast in autonomous marine technology, so maturity can happen soon.”

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