Unmanned surface vehicle

Last updated
British RNMB Harrier in 2020, autonomous USV of the Atlas Elektronik ARCIMS mine warfare system FUTURE MINE HUNTING SYSTEM COMES TO CLYDE MOD 45166088.jpg
British RNMB Harrier in 2020, autonomous USV of the Atlas Elektronik ARCIMS mine warfare system
A passenger USV demonstration at Hampton, Virginia, USA in January 2009 US Navy 090114-N-4515N-151 The Navy, in conjunction with the Spatial Integrated Systems Incorporated, holds a demonstration of a fully autonomous unmanned surface vehicle.jpg
A passenger USV demonstration at Hampton, Virginia, USA in January 2009

Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs; also known as Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) or (in some cases) Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs), Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USVs), [1] or colloquially drone ships [2] ) are boats or ships that operate on the surface of the water without a crew. [3] USVs operate with various levels of autonomy, from simple remote control, [4] to autonomous COLREGs compliant navigation. [5]


Regulatory environment

The regulatory environment for USV operations is changing rapidly as the technology develops and is more frequently deployed on commercial projects. The Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship UK Industry Conduct Principles and Code of Practice 2020 (V4) has been prepared by the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group (MASRWG) and published by Maritime UK through the Society of Maritime Industries. Organisations that contributed to the development of the MASS Code of Practice include The Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), Atlas Elektronik UK Ltd, AutoNaut, Fugro, the UK Chamber of Shipping, UKHO, Trinity House, Nautical Institute, National Oceanography Centre, Dynautics Limited, SEA-KIT International and many more.

In July 2021, SEA-KIT International became the first USV designer and builder to receive Unmanned Marine Systems (UMS) certification from Lloyd's Register for its 12m X-class USV design. USV Maxlimer is SEA-KIT's proof of concept X-class vessel, based at their headquarters in Tollesbury, Essex.


As early as the end of World War II, remote-controlled USVs were used[ by whom? ] in minesweeping applications. [6] [ page needed ] Since then, advances in USV control systems and navigation technologies have resulted in USVs that an operator can control remotely (from land or from a nearby vessel): [7] USVs that operate with partially autonomous control, and USVs (ASVs) that operate fully autonomously. [6] Modern applications and research areas for USVs and ASVs include commercial shipping, [8] environmental and climate monitoring, seafloor mapping, [8] [9] passenger ferries, [10] robotic research, [11] surveillance, inspection of bridges and other infrastructure, [12] military, and naval operations. [6]

USV Autonomy Platforms

A number of autonomy platforms tailored specifically for USV operations are available on the market. Some are tied to very particular vessels, while others are flexible enough to be applied to different hull, mechanical, and electrical configurations.

USV Autonomy Platforms
NameVendorTypeDeployed VesselsVendor Bespoke USVsConversion to USV / OEMCOLREGs
ASView L3HarrisCommercial100+ [5] YesYes [13] Capable [5]
MOOS MITOpen SourceNoYes (Open Source)Capable [14]
SM300 Sea MachinesCommercial7NoYesCapable [15]

Control and operation

The design and build of uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) is complex and challenging. Hundreds of decisions relating to mission goals, payload requirements, power budget, hull design, communication systems and propulsion control and management need to be analysed and implemented. Crewed vessel builders often rely on single-source suppliers for propulsion and instrumentation to help the crew control the vessel. In the case of an uncrewed (or partially crewed) vessel, the builder needs to replace elements of the human interface with a remote human interface.

Technical considerations

Uncrewed surface vessels vary in size from under 1 metre LOA to 20+ metres, with displacements ranging from a few kilograms to many tonnes, so propulsion systems cover a wide range of power levels, interfaces and technologies.

Interface types (broadly) in order of size/power:

While many of these protocols carry demands to the propulsion, most of them do not bring back any status information. Feedback of achieved RPM may come from tacho pulses or from built-in sensors that generate CAN or serial data. Other sensors may be fitted, such as current sensing on electric motors, which can give an indication of power delivered. Safety is a critical concern, especially at high power levels, but even a small propeller can cause damage or injury and the control system needs to be designed with this in mind. This is particularly important in handover protocols for optionally manned boats.

A frequent challenge faced in the control of USVs is the achievement of a smooth response from full astern to full ahead. Crewed vessels usually have a detent behaviour, with a wide deadband around the stop position. To achieve accurate control of differential steering, the control system needs to compensate for this deadband. Internal combustion engines tend to drive through a gearbox, with an inevitable sudden change when the gearbox engages which the control system must take into account. Waterjets are the exception to this, as they adjust smoothly through the zero point. Electric drives often have a similar deadband built in, so again the control system needs to be designed to preserve this behaviour for a man on board, but smooth it out for automatic control, e.g., for low-speed manoeuvring and Dynamic Positioning.

Intelligent marine technology provider, Dynautics Ltd, has developed a wide range of solutions to drive propulsion and steering from a few Watts up of 1,000 hp or more, from electric to internal combustion as well as for sail and wave-propelled vessels.


USV used in oceanographic research, June 2011 Autonomousresearchvess.jpg
USV used in oceanographic research, June 2011

USVs are valuable in oceanography, as they are more capable than moored or drifting weather buoys, but far cheaper than the equivalent weather ships and research vessels, [16] and more flexible than commercial-ship contributions. Wave gliders, in particular, harness wave energy for primary propulsion [17] and, with solar cells to power their electronics, have months of marine persistence [18] for both academic [19] [20] and naval applications. [21] [22]

Powered USVs are a powerful tool for use in hydrographic survey. [11] Using a small USV in parallel to traditional survey vessels as a 'force-multiplier' can double survey coverage and reduce time on-site. This method was used for a survey carried out in the Bering Sea, off Alaska; the ASV Global 'C-Worker 5' autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) collected 2,275 nautical miles of survey, 44% of the project total. This was a first for the survey industry and resulted in a saving of 25 days at sea. [23] In 2020, the British USV Maxlimer completed an unmanned survey of 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) of seafloor in the Atlantic Ocean west of the English Channel. [24]


Military applications for USVs include powered seaborne targets and minehunting. [25] In 2016 DARPA launched an anti-submarine USV prototype called Sea Hunter. Turkish firm Aselsan produced USVs for Turkish Navy; ALBATROS-T and ALBATROS-K High-Speed Unmanned Surface Target Boats are used by Turkish Naval Forces. [26] [27] Turkey also developed the first indigenous armed unmanned surface vessel (AUSV) called ULAQ (AUSV). [28] Developed by Ares Shipyard, Meteksan Defence Systems and Roketsan. ULAQ (AUSV) is armed with 4x Roketsan Cirit and 2x UMTAS. It completed its first firing test successfully on 27th May 2021. [29] The ULAQ can be deployed from combat ships. It can be controlled remotely from mobile vehicles, headquarters, command centers and floating platforms. It will serve in missions such as reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence, surface warfare, asymmetric warfare, armed escort, force protection, and strategic facility security. Ares Shipyard's CEO says much more different versions of ULAQ equipped with different weapons are under development. [30] It's primary user will be Turkish Naval Forces.


In the future, many unmanned cargo ships are expected to cross the waters. [31]

Seaweed farming

Unmanned surface vehicles can also assist in seaweed farming and help to reduce operating costs. [32] [33]


A saildrone is a type of unmanned surface vehicle used primarily in oceans for data collection. [34] Saildrones are wind and solar powered and carry a suite of science sensors and navigational instruments. They can follow a set of remotely prescribed waypoints. [35] The saildrone was invented by Richard Jenkins, a British engineer and adventurer. [36] Saildrones have been used by scientists and research organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to survey the marine ecosystem, fisheries, and weather. [37] [38] In January 2019, a small fleet of saildrones was launched to attempt the first autonomous circumnavigation of Antarctica. [39] One of the saildrones completed the mission, traveling 12,500 miles (20,100 km) over the seven month journey while collecting a detailed data set using on board environmental monitoring instrumentation. [40]

In August 2019, SD 1021 completed the fastest unmanned Atlantic crossing sailing from Bermuda to the UK, [41] and in October, it completed the return trip to become the first autonomous vehicle to cross the Atlantic in both directions. [42] The University of Washington and the Saildrone company began a joint venture in 2019 called The Saildrone Pacific Sentinel Experiment, which positioned six saildrones along the west coast of the United States to gather atmospheric and ocean data. [43] [44]

See also

Related Research Articles

Unmanned aerial vehicle Aircraft without any human pilot or passengers on board

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without any human pilot, crew or passengers on board. UAVs are a component of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which include additionally a ground-based controller and a system of communications with the UAV. The flight of UAVs may operate under remote control by a human operator, as remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA), or with various degrees of autonomy, such as autopilot assistance, up to fully autonomous aircraft that have no provision for human intervention.

Watercraft Vehicles that are intended for locomotion on or in the water

Watercraft, also known as water vessels or waterborne vessels, are vehicles used in and on water, including boats, ships, hovercraft, and submarines. Watercraft usually have a propulsive capability and hence are distinct from a simple device that merely floats, such as a log raft.

Future of the Royal Navy

Future planning of the Royal Navy's capabilities is set through periodic Defence Reviews carried out by the British Government. The Royal Navy's role in the 2020s, and beyond, is outlined in the 2021 defence white paper, which was published on 22 March 2021. The white paper is one component of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, titled as Global Britain in a Competitive Age which was published on 16 March 2021.

Turkish Naval Forces naval warfare service branch of the Turkish Armed Forces

The Turkish Naval Forces, or Turkish Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the Turkish Armed Forces.

Autonomous underwater vehicle Unmanned underwater vehicle with autonomous guidance system

An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is a robot that travels underwater without requiring input from an operator. AUVs constitute part of a larger group of undersea systems known as unmanned underwater vehicles, a classification that includes non-autonomous remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) – controlled and powered from the surface by an operator/pilot via an umbilical or using remote control. In military applications an AUV is more often referred to as an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV). Underwater gliders are a subclass of AUVs.

Unmanned ground vehicle Type of vehicle

An unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) is a vehicle that operates while in contact with the ground and without an onboard human presence. UGVs can be used for many applications where it may be inconvenient, dangerous, or impossible to have a human operator present. Generally, the vehicle will have a set of sensors to observe the environment, and will either autonomously make decisions about its behavior or pass the information to a human operator at a different location who will control the vehicle through teleoperation.

Protector USV

The Protector unmanned surface vehicle (USV) was developed by the Israeli Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in response to emerging terrorist threats against maritime assets such as the USS Cole bombing, and is the first operational combat USV in service. It is fitted with a Mini Typhoon Weapon Station. In 2005, it was deployed by the Singapore Navy to support coalition forces in the Sea of Japan, and was later deployed for anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden. In 2012, Rafael announced that they were building a larger version of the Protector, that would have a greater range, and be equipped with a wider range of weaponry.

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV), sometimes known as underwater drones, are any submersible vehicles that are able to operate underwater without a human occupant. These vehicles are robotic, and may be divided into the two categories of remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROUVs), which are remotely controlled by a human operator; and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are highly automated and operate independently of direct human input. Sometimes only vehicles in the second category are considered a kind of autonomous robot, but those in the first category are also robots though requiring a remote operator, similar to surgical robots.

Richard Jenkins is a 44 year old engineer from Lymington, UK. He is known for engineering and sailing wind-driven vessels on land, ice, and water. In 1999, he founded the Windjet Project while studying mechanical engineering at Imperial College. Since then he has designed, built, and tested four separate speed record craft. Jenkins is currently the founder and CEO of Saildrone, a company that designs, manufacturers, and manages unmanned surface vehicles that sail the world's oceans collecting science data. In 2019, SD 1020 became the first unmanned vehicle to complete a circumnavigation of Antarctica, crossing every longitude line in the Southern Ocean.

Uncrewed vehicle Type of vehicle

An uncrewed vehicle or unmanned vehicle is a vehicle without a person on board. Uncrewed vehicles can either be remote controlled or remote guided vehicles, or they can be autonomous vehicles which are capable of sensing their environment and navigating on their own.

ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel

The ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) is a DARPA funded project launched in early 2010 to develop an anti-submarine drone. ASW is an acronym for Anti-Submarine Warfare. In January 2018 after successful sea trials it was announced that the "Sea Hunter" prototype has transitioned from DARPA to the Office of Naval Research for further development.

Liquid Robotics is an American marine robotics corporation that designs, manufactures and sells the Wave Glider, a wave and solar powered unmanned surface vehicle (USV). The Wave Glider harvests energy from ocean waves for propulsion. With this energy source, Wave Gliders can spend many months at a time at sea, collecting and transmitting ocean data.

Fleet-class unmanned surface vessel

The Fleet-class unmanned surface vessel, also called the Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV) and later the Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle, is an unmanned surface vessel designed for the United States Navy to be deployed from Freedom and Independence-class littoral combat ships and intended to conduct mine and anti-submarine warfare missions. As of 2012 four units of the class have been built; the first was delivered to the U.S. Navy in 2008.

Seaborne targets are vessels or floating structures that are shot at for practice by naval or air forces. They may be remotely controlled and mobile, or towed behind other craft, or just set adrift in the sea.

The Hammerhead USV-T is a remote-controlled, high-speed seaborne target drone used for naval training. The craft is built and produced by Meggitt Training Systems in cooperation with A. F. Theriault & Son Ltd and approximately 80 other companies that produce innards and accessories of the boats. The Hammerhead USV-T is used for tactical training scenarios at sea.

<i>Sea Hunter</i>

Sea Hunter is an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle (USV) launched in 2016 as part of the DARPA Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program. She was christened 7 April 2016 in Portland, Oregon. She was built by Vigor Industrial. The vessel continues the line of experimental "Sea" ships, including Sea Shadow, Sea Fighter, Sea Jet, and Sea Slice. Sea Hunter is classified as a Class III USV and designated the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV).

INS <i>Investigator</i> (J15)

INS Investigator (J15) is the fourth ship in the Sandhayak class, and operates as a hydrographic survey ship in the Indian Navy's Southern Naval Command. Investigator is equipped to prepare marine charts and electronic maps for the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS). It can provide humanitarian aid and disaster-management support, and can be quickly converted into a hospital ship; the ship is equipped with an operating theater and associated equipment to deal with medical emergencies at sea.

USV Maxlimer is a semi-autonomous unmanned surface vehicle operated by the British company Sea-Kit. She was the winning entry in the Ocean Discovery X Prize competition, and subsequently has been used as a proof-of-concept vessel for underwater mapping.

ULAQ is the prototype of the first Turkish armed unmanned surface vessel (AUSV).

The JARI USV is an unmanned surface vehicle developed by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), specifically between its No. 716 Research Institute, the Jiangsu Automation Research Institute (JARI), and No. 702 Research Institute, China Ship Scientific Research Centre (CSRRC). The unmanned warship is designed for potential use for the People's Liberation Army Navy and export customers.


  1. "UNCREWED SURFACE VESSEL Research and Development Program at the NOAA – UNH Joint Hydrographic Center/Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping" (PDF).
  2. Mizokami, Kyle (2019-01-15). "The U.S. Navy's Big Push Into Drone Ships Will Lead to Unmanned Vessels Carrying Weapons". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 2020-08-19.
  3. Yan, Ru-jian; Pang, Shuo; Sun, Han-bing; Pang, Yong-jie (2010). "Development and missions of unmanned surface vehicle". Journal of Marine Science and Application. 9 (4): 451–457. Bibcode:2010JMSA....9..451Y. doi:10.1007/s11804-010-1033-2. S2CID   109174151.
  4. "SM200 Wireless Remote-Helm Control System". Sea Machines. 11 December 2020. Retrieved 14 July 2021.
  5. 1 2 3 "L3Harris ASView™ Control System". L3Harris. Retrieved 14 July 2021.
  6. 1 2 3 National Research Council, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (5 August 2005). Autonomous Vehicles in Support of Naval Operations. National Academies Press. ISBN   978-0-309-18123-5 . Retrieved 15 October 2019.
  7. "USV (UNMANNED SURFACE VEHICLE), APPLICATIONS AND ADVANTAGES". embention.com. Embention. 18 Sep 2015. Retrieved 15 Oct 2019.
  8. 1 2 Amos, Jonathan (9 May 2019). "Autonomous boat makes oyster run". BBC News . Retrieved 2 Dec 2019.
  9. Carson, Daniel F. (2019). "An affordable and portable autonomous surface vehicle with obstacle avoidance for coastal ocean monitoring". HardwareX . 6: e00059. doi: 10.1016/j.ohx.2019.e00059 .
  10. "The ferry using Rolls-Royce technology that sails itself". BBC News . Finland. 3 Dec 2018. Retrieved 15 Oct 2019.
  11. 1 2 Manley, Justin E. (2008). "Unmanned Surface Vehicles, 15 Years of Development" (PDF). IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society . Retrieved 14 Oct 2019.
  12. Feather, Andrew (1 Dec 2019). "MDOT: Unmanned sonar-equipped boat to make bridge inspections 'safer and more efficient'". WWMT . Michigan, USA. Retrieved 2 Dec 2019.
  13. "Unmanned Conversions". L3Harris.
  14. "The AvdColregs Behavior".
  15. "Huntington Ingalls Industries Debuts Proteus Unmanned Surface Test Vessel". 20 May 2021.
  16. Stevens Institute of Technology student USV Archived 2010-08-11 at the Wayback Machine
  17. "Carbon Wave Glider" . Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  18. "Robot Boats Survive Epic Voyage Across the Pacific — So Far". WIRED. 23 May 2012. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  19. Autonomous Navigation and Obstacle Avoidance of Unmanned Vessels in Simulated Rough Sea States. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 24 February 2016 via YouTube.
  20. "Robotica - An experimental setup for autonomous operation of surface vessels in rough seas - Cambridge Journals Online" . Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  21. This story was written Amanda D. Stein; Naval Postgraduate School Public Affairs. "NPS Acquires Two USVs, Opens Sea Web Lab for Expanded Undersea Warfare Research" . Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  22. "Information Dissemination: Eureka! Wave Glider" . Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  23. Andrew Orthmann (2016-11-22). "Bering Sea ASV Force Multiplier". Hydro-international.com. Retrieved 2018-05-10.
  24. "Robot boat completes three-week Atlantic mission". BBC News Online. 15 August 2020. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  25. "United States Navy Fact File: MINE COUNTERMEASURES UNMANNED SURFACE VEHICLE (MCM USV)". navy.mil. United States Navy. 2 Jan 2019. Retrieved 14 Oct 2019.
  26. "ALBATROS-K" (PDF).
  27. "Aselsan Albatros T seaborn target" (PDF).
  28. ""ULAQ is the first indigenous armed unmanned surface vessel (AUSV) developed in Turkey."".
  29. "Turkey Completes First Unmanned Surface Vehicle Live-Fire Trial". 3 June 2021.
  30. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnlGI3yk9OU
  31. "Unmanned cargo ships". Hellenic Shipping News. 17 March 2017. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  32. Newburyport scientist’s drone aimed at helping seaweed farmers
  33. CA Goudey Drone Tug
  34. "Drones at sea: Unmanned vehicles to expand data collection from far-flung locales - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration". www.noaa.gov.
  35. Fisher, Adam (2014-02-18). "The Drone That Will Sail Itself Around the World". Wired. ISSN   1059-1028 . Retrieved 2019-02-13.
  36. "This Engineer Is Building an Armada of Saildrones That Could Remake Weather Forecasting". Bloomberg.com. 2018-05-15. Retrieved 2020-09-08.
  37. "Saildrones go where humans can't — or don't want to — to study the world's oceans". The Seattle Times. 2018-07-01. Retrieved 2019-02-13.
  38. "Saildrone Hopes Its Robotic Sailboats Can Save the World by Collecting Precise Climate-Change Data". Inc.com. 2017-06-13. Retrieved 2019-02-13.
  39. "Saildrone Fleet Launches in New Zealand on Epic Journey". www.saildrone.com. Retrieved 2019-02-13.
  40. Vance, Ashlee (5 Aug 2019). "Saildrone's Journey Around Antarctica Uncovers New Climate Clues". Bloomberg Businessweek . Retrieved 15 Oct 2019.
  41. Dimitropoulos, Stav (2019-11-19). "The New Ocean Explorers". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  42. "Saildrone USV Completes First Atlantic Crossing East to West". www.saildrone.com. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  43. "The Saildrone Pacific Sentinel Experiment". University of Washington. Retrieved 11 November 2019.
  44. "Can Autonomous Weather-Observation Sailboats Improve Forecasts over the U.S.?". Cliff Mass Weather and Climate Blog. 10 November 2019. Retrieved 11 November 2019.