Going Under: Elite Navy Units Call on Water-Based Drones

Surveillance, bomb detection among new drone roles in rebalance to the Pacific.

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Unmanned underwater vehicles, such as this REMUS model, could become an important part of the U.S. Navy's presence in the Pacific.

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Most of the testing, training and operations occurs around the shores and harbors where the Navy operates, in keeping with National Environmental Protection Act policies, says Simmons, adding it's unlikely to see one of these on a trip to the beach.

"You're not interfacing with the public, not interfacing in areas used by commercial traffic, you deconflict with any sort of shipping traffic," he says. The intelligence gathering and surveying could also help homeland defense and border security. Von Alt gives the example of a bomb threat in New York Harbor, where finding an unusual object would be easier if an underwater drone had already surveilled and mapped out the harbor floor.

Unlike the aerial drones that frequently appear in international headlines, these underwater vehicles are largely not remotely controlled. Water blocks much more information bandwidth than air, says Simmons. Instead, the REMUS is programmed to take on a certain task, and only broadcasts information confirming it is still performing its job.

[RELATED: FBI Hasn't Responded to Rand Paul's Request For 'Prompt' Answers on Drones]

Simmons says these new drones are generating a great deal of excitement among students, though they don't necessarily produce the same headline-grabbing results.

"There's going to be increased interest as they become cheaper and more capable," he says. "It's unlike a remote-controlled boat or airplane, and having gone out on UUV test events, they're not that exciting after you launch it."

"The entertainment value is, 'Did it come back?' and "What did you get from the sensors?'" he says. Harmer says it's only a matter of time before pirates and criminal syndicates begin using underwater weapons similarly to insurgents' use of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When these organized Asian gangs get their hands on the maritime technology, they're going to start 'shaking down' the shipping lanes," he says. Underwater drones that could help combat this are "really starting to gain traction both in terms of technology and in terms of possible employment."

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  • Correction 7/09/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Hydroid is based in Norway.