How Do Underwater Drones Work | Functions, Benefits, Uses

How do underwater drones work?

Most of us by now may have seen cool aerial drones, but what about drones that works underwater? Thus, the query: How do underwater drones work? Underwater drones, also known as unmanned underwater vehicles, allows people to shoot and capture images and video of the world behind the deep blue sea without direct human input. It’s like a mini submarine performing tasks of a human being.

Modern Underwater Drones

Modern underwater drones are like miniature submarines that can perform a variety of things. In underwater exploration, be it a hobby or for educational purposes to maybe archeological finds, underwater drones may provide specific assistance.

From simple actions like taking photos and videos of exotic marine life, diving inside smaller underwater regions or areas that no human or submarine can access, exploring shipwrecks, to complicated ones like underwater drones designed as military mine-sweepers, checking underwater pipelines and dams, deep sea marine exploration, scientific research, environmental monitoring and research among others.

There are two categories of underwater drones and I’ll break it down for you since they work in different ways and can be used in different activities.

Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicles [ROUVs]

First one are the remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROUVs) which uses a line that connects them to the control room where they’re operated. Inside a control room, operators can manage the orientation of the vehicle in real-time.

The drone’s cameras act like eyes, allowing the operators to guide the drone to its target destination. In laymen’s term, it has a long tether or cable that allows for a direct connection between the operator or diver inside a ship or boat and the drone itself.

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle [AUV]

Second is the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) are unmanned, operating without any cable or tether and basically pre-programmed to travel to a specific location via GPS and perform designated tasks like gathering data, sensor readings, seabed surveys or taking basic images and videos.

Whatever type of category of underwater drone you are looking or researching for, underwater drones truly has been one of the most amazing invention ever developed in history and it still more room for improvements most especially on the field of marine robotics and the endless possibilities that we can benefit from it.

What are underwater drones?

Most of you have probably watched the movie Titanic for more than a couple of times, right?

Remember that opening shot of a small remote-controlled submarine showing the remnants of shipwreck and poking into the deteriorated parts of the ship as well as residue of the passenger’s belongings? That is an underwater drone! Fascinating right?

Underwater drones were invented and used as early as the 1950s. They were first used by the Navy or Marines in a number of missions like retrieving torpedoes, clearing out underwater mines or underwater research.

Underwater drones are basically a a miniature submarine without any crew in it. They are classified into two categories: the remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV).

Remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROUVs) is like an underwater robot which is remotely controlled by a human operator. Most ROUVs in the market now ranges in size: consumer-oriented ROUVs can be as small as a basketball and as big as a truck for deep sea exploration.

While an AUV is the complete opposite of ROUV. It does not include any cable or tether and can perform pre-programmed designated tasks.

Historically, underwater drones are used for military purposes but as the years go by they are now being used in various industries.

In the oil and energy industry, ROUVs are used to perform routine inspection work which help lessen the environmental impact from harmful monitoring and inspection as well as avoid accidents like loss of human lives.

In aquaculture, they help fish farmers when it comes to ensuring efficient harvest, net inspections, stock monitoring and even environmental protection.

In marine research or ocean science, ROUVs are helpful with environmental research surveying our oceans for evidence and new discoveries.

Instead of deep sea divers, an underwater drone is the perfect alternative to perform research dives and in turn helps protect marine life by leaving it uncontaminated by humans.

How far can drones go underwater?

Since underwater drones ranges in sizes, they also differ when it comes to the maximum depth they can reached. This all depends on the type and function of the underwater drone.

Consumer friendly ROUVs that are used for recreational dive and other purposes can perform shallow deployment around 1,000 feet or 300 meters.

On the other hand, larger and heavy-duty ROUVs suitable for deep sea exploration, and the ones used by the oil, shipping and gas industry can dive as deep as 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters.

Meanwhile AUVs or wireless underwater drones which are not that common and relatively cheaper than ROVs can dive as deep as 100 meters. Unlike the ROUV, AUV can

only reach certain depths and have shorter power time since it is relatively a new technology that is yet to be developed than the ROUV.

How long do underwater drones last?

Modern underwater drones can operate and function for hours on end without the need to recharge. Based on market studies, there are no limits on how long an underwater drone can stay down.

They can run reliably for weeks, without human intervention. Thus, scientists or the so-called “ROUV pilots” do create detailed and systematic plans for a more efficient and productive use of these underwater drones.

This is so since each underwater drone activity, whether it be a deep sea exploration, oil rigs inspection and monitoring, entails an expensive amount of budget.

How do underwater drones help explore the deep ocean?

The ocean covers about 70 percent of Earth’s surface and more than 80 percent of it is yet to be explored. It is home to the most number of living species on Earth and water is considered as the most basic need of a human being.

The ocean, as we know it, is the one big source of natural resources such as food, energy, oil, exotic marine life, transport routes and recreation.

As a big chunk of the ocean is yet to be explored, scientists biggest challenge is getting access to data to tell us new information and unravel more discoveries about the sea and how we can benefit from it.

Although there is much more to learn and discover, the emergence of underwater drones makes the underwater world accessible to everyone and not just to marine researchers, oceanographers or scientists but to even to recreational divers..

The desire to see what lies beneath the waves is greater than ever. Ever since the discovery of the Titanic shipwreck with the use of specially designed ROUVs, the desire to uncover and discover the deep blue sea is growing.

Moreover, underwater exploration, inspection and monitoring is not just limited to marine scientists. Various industries such as the oil and gas industry as well as the shipping and aquaculture industry benefits a lot from using underwater drones.

As for deep sea exploration or underwater discovery, compared to deploying divers to perform deep sea dives, underwater drones are much more cost and performance efficient with less environmental damage.

Underwater drones can stay long for 8-12 hours and operate off on battery power. They can function for hours without the need to recharge and can have access to smaller regions or areas that divers can’t reach.

Will underwater drones make submarines obsolete?

Underwater drones may remain as one of the most exciting and innovative technological creation that has been developed and used but it is still early to say that they can make submarines obsolete.

Submarines have played an important role during the past warfares and even today they still remain to play a pivotal role not just in warfare but also in terms of national security.

Nuclear-powered submarines are now gaining attention all over the world which makes them very, very quiet and remain undetected by other submarines.

Moreover, in the event that territorial and boundary disputes arise in the future, submarines will play a big role when it comes to protecting a country’s interest and international standpoint.

This explains why underwater drones cannot topple submarines since the former still has rooms for improvement.

However, maybe a few decades from now, the submarines we know today will face an environment where it’s harder to hide due to technological advancements wherein robots will play a much bigger role.

Why are underwater drones not as popular as aerial drones?

Compared to aerial drones that became popular and relatively consumer friendly this past few years, underwater drones are not that known.

There has been a growing number of civilian drones being used in the sky for aerial photography, surveillance and search and rescue.

Now you might be asking why is it not the same with underwater drones? Here’s my takeaway on that.

The desire of a person to discover the underwater world is growing as years go by however not everyone is knowledgeable on the uses and functions of an underwater drone.

Other people might not even have an idea what an underwater drone is. If you asked someone on the street or even a personal friend, the first thing they will tell you if you mention the term “drone”, they will definitely mention aerial drones.

What they do know is that underwater drones are used by scientists or oceanographers or professional deep sea scuba divers.

There is less information and market size for underwater drones hence it is not really popular than its counterpart- the aerial drones.

How do underwater drones communicate?

We are aware that a message travels through radio waves to the control channel then it is transmitted to the recipient. However that does not work in underwater drones.

Radio waves do not have much range underwater thus underwater drones communicate via a long cable wherein an operator sends commands to the ROV and the latter delivers real-time video or images.

As for AUVs, some companies today developed AUVs which transmits binary data though water via pulses of light. Theses pulses of light then transmits data to the ship at the surface depending on the rate of speed.

There is still some hindered growth when it comes to the technology behind AUVs that the ROVs however the future of AUV drones looks brighter as demand for more cheaper underwater drones are on the rise coupled with advancing technologies.


Historically, underwater drones are used almost exclusively for research, exploration, or work. Some of the most common ones are shallow inspection work, fish harvest monitoring, oil rig inspection among others.

However, for freedivers and marine enthusiasts like me, the emergence of underwater drones, most especially the compact, consumer- friendly ones, paved a new way to appreciate the world of the deep blue ocean.

For freedivers who are into underwater photography, underwater drones is like your dive buddy or best friend when you do deep dives or simple line trainings.

It can record your dives and serves as a reference material on how to further improve dive trainings, physique, and much more.

As to whether underwater drones will be a hit or miss, I must say that today, they are gaining a foothold in the drone market segment.

I cannot imagine the side effects that might happen with this rapid introduction of underwater drones.

Nonetheless, I am more leaning on the positive side that with people’s curiosity and desire to discover and be knowledgeable over marine life and the underwater world.

This only means that we will now have more responsible individuals to care for Mother Nature, thus, preserving and cultivating what needs to be nurtured and developed.

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