Beyond the skies – the rise of amphibious unmanned vehicles

The development and use of unmanned vehicles has so far been concentrated on those that fly. However, the realisation that this technology can be applied to different environments, for use on land and water, for example, has seen the development of new types of drones.  Amphibious unmanned vehicles encompass unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).  The development of new kinds of USVs is speeding up with the recent testing of the latest system, the Eclipse, by a US based firm 5G International; their new unmanned stealth boat is being designed in conjunction with Al Seer Marine, based in Abu Dhabi.  5G International have identified a number of areas, as highlighted in an accompanying report, where they believe USVs could be productive in combating maritime problems, such as piracy and human trafficking, in areas such as the Straits of Malacca and the Strait of Gibraltar. 5G International indicate that their new USV could be a useful tool in the prevention of piracy – the fact that these vehicles operate on the surface of the water provides, according to 5G, a visual deterrent, as well as being able to directly engage craft. Further uses include the potential for their craft to be used in searching for mines. 

The Daily Mail quoted Al Seer Marine spokesman Keith Henderson, who said:

Our fleet of USVs is unique. Various companies have prototype boats but none offer a whole fleet. The size and type of USV depends very much on the kind of mission you want to send it on. We have something for everything – our fleet is the first in the world…. We believe our boats will be at the forefront of the fight against piracy, and crucial to search and rescue missions around the world.

5G International’s report claims the Eclipse fleet will consist of a variety of different craft, varying greatly in size and power. One of the smaller craft, the ‘Swarmette’ measures at only 1 metre, whilst the larger High Speed Pursuit Craft measures in at 13.4 metres. These drones can be equipped with a range of tools including a high powered fire hose, a cannon that can fire a net to foul propellers and a 50 calibre gun.

The Guardian reported on a new UUV operation designed to deter mining in the Arabian Gulf.  Led by the US and involving 40 states, the three week exercise involves nineteen UUVs, a number of which have been provided by the UK.  The exercise has caused heightened tensions between Iran and the West. Commodore Ancona, a UK Navy officer who is second in command of the operation, was quick to dispel any suggestion that the exercise was a provocation aimed towards Iran, saying: “I don’t think it can be seen as provocative, it is irrefutably defensive. I mean there is nothing offensive about mine sweeping.”

US Navy Vice Admiral John Miller, in overall command of the operation commented on the increased capacity that UUVs now provide the US Navy:

Last year we had about five hours of experience [on UUVs]. … Now we have 500 hours. Last year the US sent eight counter-mine ships to the region, but based on what we learned about UUVs, we have sent two of them back to the US.  That capability and capacity has been replaced by unmanned technologies, and I foresee more of that in the future. We are rapidly approaching a period where we take sailors out of the minefield, but we don’t take sailors out of the process. Data still needs to be evaluated; decisions still need to be made.

Military use is not the only place where unmanned boats are starting to emerge. Unmanned civilian boats created for leisure are beginning to surface in the news.  BBC News reported on the 1.2metre boat Snoopy Sloop, which set sail from the Hampshire coast in November. Robin Lovelock, who developed and owns the boat, hopes it will be the first unmanned craft to cross the Atlantic. His attempt is part of the Microtransat Challenge, which is a yearly transatlantic race designed to stimulate the development of autonomous boats. No one has yet completed the challenge.

The development of the Eclipse fleet of USVs is an important issue. It is a marker of increased attention by private companies to the potential of maritime drones. It is also the first time a private company has developed and produced its own USVs on a large scale to be marketed to the military. This could well be the start of a growth in private drone manufacturing for military use as well as a potential proliferation of USVs.

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