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The 101 on Underwater Drones

Martin Guzman   |   January 20, 2020

Since the 1950s, underwater drones have been developed and used.

The United States Navy paved the way for the development of underwater drones. It was in the 1960s that the Navy started using underwater cameras and drones to retrieve lost equipment and explore wrecks.

It was even an underwater drone that discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. As with all things drone, the 2000s have seen a lot of improvement and increase in capability and reach. Modern drones are far more advanced than anything that came before them and innovation continues still.

The History of Underwater Drones

Underwater drones were first invented in the 1950s. Their design enabled them to carry out missions for the Navy and research colleges.

The money came from the defense budget. Like many technologies to emerge from the Cold War, drones fell under the Navy's control.

In the 1960s, technology continued to advance. This allowed an underwater drone to even retrieve a lost nuclear bomb. The retrieval occurred off the coast of Spain and remained secret for many years.

Through the 1970s, commercial industries began to use them in earnest. Underwater drones even saved the crew of a wrecked submarine during the 1970s. Droves grew in demand for their effectiveness and ability to do things no human could.

The most famous decade that heralded the arrival of underwater drones was the 1980s.

The finding of the Titanic by Robert Ballard required a new type of ROV. They developed this machine with help from the Navy. The latest version enabled the discovery of the famous wrecks of the Titanic and Bismarck.

In the 1990s, drones began to do more extensive work.

Newer drone models could now disable mines and do other duties that once relied on human divers. Methods of deployment and battery life were also improved. These improvements led to an even more extensive array of industries that used the drones.

The 2000s saw a massive boost to underwater drones. The reason behind this was the improvement of the lithium-ion battery technology.

As this method of energy storage improved, so too did the construction of drones. In decades past, a drone would require a tremendous tether and a full research ship to deploy. In the 2000s, it became possible to deploy them off much smaller vessels.

Since then, drone usage has continued to grow. Underwater drones get used by industry and military missions around the world.

How Does an Underwater Drone Work?

Modern underwater drones are like miniature submarines without crew. These submarine drones are challenging to send radio signals to. They can be autonomous, using their onboard sensors to function. Another method is a long tether that allows for a direct connection between ship and drone.

An underwater drone works by controlling its buoyancy so that it doesn’t sink. Like all underwater vehicles, they have crush depths and can be designed for different operating conditions. The motors they use push water and allow the drone to move about either by command or on their own.

Most underwater drones use a line that connects them to the control room where they’re operated. Inside this control room, operators can manage the tilt, elevation, and orientation of the vehicle in real-time. Cameras act like eyes, allowing the operators to guide the drone to its target.

Capabilities of an Underwater Drone

The primary purpose of an underwater drone is to go underwater. They function great as an underwater camera to pinpoint wreckage and lost equipment.

Underwater drones are also perfect for inspecting a ship's outer hull. The oil and gas industry uses drones often to check underwater drill sights.

This was brought to the public consciousness after the BP oil spill, which saw daily drone footage displayed on network news. Before that, they had gained fame from finding wrecks like the Titanic and Bismarck, thanks to how good they are at scouring the ocean floor.

The depth an underwater drone can operate in depends on the design of the vehicle. Some drones are designed to do near-surface tasks, while others can dive all the way to the ocean floor. These drones are built with sturdy braces and pressure ratings that allow them to take the weight of the water.

Unlike manned submersibles, underwater drones don’t need to cater to crew safety. This allows them to be much smaller and carry more sensors and tools than a similarly sized submersible of the past. This is very useful to researchers who use them for an array of operations.

Detecting potential ecological disasters and finding new sea life are all areas revolutionized by the use of underwater drones. They can take samples of the seafloor and water at various depths. These samples can help scientists determine pollution and potential dangers to people living near the coast.

Drones can operate in conditions that humans would find impossible. Such conditions include extended submersion in icy waters of the arctic or algae blooms that are harmful to life. This enables researchers and commercial interests to deploy sensors and tools that were impossible even a few years ago.

Who Uses Underwater Drones?

The Navy has been central to the creation and innovation of underwater drone technology. The modern commercial industry has continued this tradition, and an underwater drone is useful for a large variety of commercial interests.

Gas and oil companies often use them to explore areas that are being considered for drilling and to check those already being drilled at. Oceanic research foundations and organizations use underwater drones for searching and analyzing the seafloor.

Those with infrastructure underwater also use them. Drones are used to monitor pipes that lay underwater and help provide oil and other essential services to society. These drones are durable enough for multiple deployments.

As technology continues to progress, underwater drones are continuing to evolve. Accessibility to them has caused their use to rise. They are expanding into all manners of ocean-based industries.

What Advantages Do Underwater Drones Have?

Compared to deploying divers, underwater drones are quite safe. Those who operate the drone can sit in the safety and comfort of a control room. Using drones can also increase the safety of divers who are accompanying them, by keeping a steady eye out for any potential danger.

The best underwater drone is one that can achieve all of these missions on a consistent basis. Deep Trekker produces commercial grade underwater drones. Their drones can fulfill a variety of missions without risking lives to do it.

Another key advantage of using underwater drones is the time they can stay underwater. Scuba tanks last for one hour in water that’s not deep or choppy. While some tanks arrangements can prolong this, the more activity the diver has to do, the more oxygen they use up.

Drones don’t need oxygen and operate off of battery power. This allows them to stay functioning for hours on end without the need to recharge. This can provide a worksite with constant monitoring, and a drone can check far more of a pipeline or the seafloor than a diver could ever hope to.

Underwater drones can also scale based upon the needs of the job at hand. If a fully functional ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) isn’t required, you don’t have to spend the money to get one. The DT Pod acts as an underwater drone camera with no need for any other frills and add-ons.

This means that drones can address the concerns of a mission without risking lives. You can scale your purchase to the task at hand instead of needing to have a diver certified in a wide array of underwater profiles.

Deploying drones doesn’t require expensive insurance and contracting costs. Some drones can be deployed by a single individual off of any boat. You don’t need to have a crew or an expansive team to operate them, thus reducing operating costs considerably.

Underwater Drones Are Here to Stay

In the modern era, underwater drones have been everything from rescuers to repair technicians. They have been at the center of diplomatic incidents and undersea disasters. The humble underwater drone, which began nearly 70 years ago, continues to make itself useful in all areas of ocean work.

Like all areas of drone technology, the underwater drone is here to stay. They continue to advance the understanding of the ocean. Without underwater drones, the oceans of the world would be far less explored and far less accessible than they are to us today.

Underwater drones might even find life on other planets. They remain one of the most exciting and energetic technological creations that humanity has ever deployed. From the depths of the ocean to outer space, the world is using drones more than ever.

Getting the right underwater drone is important for any endeavor. If you’re going to use an underwater drone, contact us at Deep Trekker. Don’t risk money and lives unnecessarily, trust in the technology that is changing the world.