Q. Are there nonmilitary applications of unmanned maritime technologies?
As with the use of aerial drones, unmanned maritime technologies have also been gaining traction for nonmilitary purposes. As National Defense magazine observed in 2012, part of the reason for the "market cross" of underwater drones, in which primarily defense companies such as Boeing and Lockheed begin trying to sell technology in commercial markets, is that defense budgets had been in decline.44 Moreover, for some of the most fruitful applications, such as oil and gas, early exploration had uncovered the low-hanging fruit and the next frontier consisted of either remote areas such as the poles or deep water, neither of which makes for easy work for manned alternatives.
Indeed, the most lucrative application of unmanned maritime systems is certainly in the service of the oil and gas industry, where these unmanned vehicles have been used for deep-sea surveys that allow companies to make maps before investing in infrastructure. These unmanned systems became prevalent in the early 1980s as a way to explore deep-sea oil fields that were beyond the reach of human divers, then pla- teaued in their development as the price of oil came down in the mid-1980s, and again accelerated so that these vehicles can be used for identification of the fields, sea development, and repair and maintenance.
Unmanned underwater vehicles are also touted for their ability to promote research in areas of the ocean that are too remote or dangerous for humans, for example, as a way to discover the underside of the Arctic and Antarctica. While altogether too cold and unwieldy for humans, these drones could be able to probe the underside of the sea ice, mapping features such as algae that allow scientists to understand the food chain in ways that they were unable to do when only marine creatures or specially trained divers were able to access the underwater algae. The diving drones, shaped like torpedoes, are launched from holes in the ice. Scientists drill these holes using oil burners and steam drills and then deploy the torpedo-l ike drones. Those drones then collect measurements that allow scientists to extrapolate the overall amount of algae under the ice.45
Similarly, unmanned underwater vehicles took over aspects of the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which proved vexing in part because of the enormous area that the search spanned. The Bluefin-21 was able to produce high resolution, 3D mapping of the sea floor and go to an area that an Australian Air Chief Marshal designated as "new to man."46 While it was an unmanned submarine that conducted this particular search, unmanned surface vehicles could carry out analogous functions.
Beyond these applications, there are also recreational uses of UUVs. Given the sophistication required to operate in the open seas, and the comparatively limited expertise of hobbyists, these unmanned vehicles tend not to go too far afield; nevertheless, this wider interest in UUVs is demonstrated by groups such as the Personal Submersibles Organization, whose members use the Internet to compare notes on how best to design, build, and operate personal underwater vehicles, both manned and unmanned, in their capacity as hobbyists.