Uncrewed surface vessels, or USVs, roam the ocean’s surface like boats, collecting oceanographic and atmospheric data, but without a human aboard. Operators at sea or on shore can remotely control USVs or program them to conduct pre-planned missions and make decisions with minimal real-time human input.
There is no single design for a USV. A USV may be purchased commercially “off the shelf” or custom built. It may resemble a motor boat, sailboat, spaceship, surfboard, or even a large bathtub toy. Ultimately, its form and other characteristics will depend on its function. What does it need to do? Where does it need to go? How long will it take to get the job done? Answers to these questions and more will help determine its sensor payload and power, size, and type of propulsion. Today, many USVs and the systems they carry are powered by wind, the sun, the waves, and/or other forms of renewable energy.
USVs are typically deployed from a ship or a pier, and some even have their own deployment systems. They may operate with a ship, on their own, or with other USVs. Or, they may work with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), collecting related data and providing their subsea counterparts with navigational support, instructions, and the communications link that enables real-time communications, monitoring, and data sharing. Some even serve as a mobile docking, data-transfer, and recharge station for other uncrewed systems.
In addition to communications and navigation instruments, USVs can be equipped with many of the same sensors as ships, AUVs, and ROVs. Sensors collect data about the environments both above and below the surface of the ocean, often sending them to ship and/or shore via satellite in real time. Oceanographic data include bathymetry, water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, currents, wave height and periods, and sound. Atmospheric data include air temperature, wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure, and humidity. USVs may also carry cameras to capture video and still imagery and systems to collect water samples.
Given their flexibility, a USV’s sensor payload can be configured to meet several simultaneous objectives. In general, data collected by USVs contribute to scientific knowledge, resource management and protection, maritime safety, climate monitoring, weather forecasting, emergency response, homeland security, the offshore energy and telecommunications industries, and more. More specifically, USVs are used to map the seafloor, water column, and marine habitats; conduct marine mammal and fishery stock assessments; monitor water and air quality; improve habitat suitability, hurricane forecast, and storm surge models; locate maritime heritage resources; and detect marine debris, oil spills, harmful substances, and illegal activities.
USVs are also starting to be used for purposes other than data collection, including as cargo “ships” and passenger ferries.
USVs are quickly becoming a favored tool in the ocean science toolbox, and their capabilities are rapidly advancing. In general, USVs are more efficient than traditional ship-based operations. They’re cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and safer (since people don’t have to go to sea). In addition, they can access remote and hazardous places and advance AUV and ROV operations and are deployable from almost anywhere. And, USVs powered by renewable energy can operate for long periods of time. Nevertheless, USVs won’t replace ships, people, AUVs, or ROVs. Rather, they will be used with them, balancing the strengths and weaknesses of each, to increase the scope, scale, and pace of data collection.
Uncrewed surface vessel (USV) is the most commonly accepted name for a surface vessel without an onboard crew. Other names include uncrewed surface vehicle, unmanned surface vessel/vehicle, autonomous surface vessel/vehicle. (Sometimes, they’re even called drones, or robots.) While most USVs have some level of autonomy, no USV is fully autonomous; all uncrewed systems require some degree of human involvement.