AUVs to replace research ships

Norwegian researchers use drones to study the marine environment

UAV self-driving ships

Photo: Akvaplan-niva
From left to right, the three UAVs being tested in Norway are Sailbuoy, Seaglider, and Wave Glider.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Many of the classic voyages of exploration were made to conduct research. In 1766, The Royal Society of Great Britain hired Captain James Cook to sail the Endeavour to carry British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks to the Pacific Ocean to make a record of the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun. In 1831-1836, the young naturalist Charles Darwin was on board the Royal Navy HMS Beagle as it circled the globe, enabling him to make the observations that formed the bases of the scientific theories that bear his name today, making the Beagle one of the most famed ships in history. By 1881, research conducted on vessels had become so significant that the U.S. Navy commissioned the building of the USS Albatross, the world’s first purpose-built marine research vessel. Launched in 1882, the Albatross cost $190,000 to build, an enormous sum for its time, equivalent to $4.9 million in 2017 dollars.

Modern research vessels are even more expensive, particularly as an increasing share of research is done under water, by divers deployed from surface support vessels. So now drones, technically known as Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) are being developed as a more cost-effective means of researching underwater marine environments. In August and September this year, Akvaplan-niva (, a R&D consultancy at the Fram Center—the High North Research Center for Climate and the Environment—in Tromsø (, conducted comparative tests of three AUVs in waters of northern Norway, from Sandnessjøen and Bodø. Two of the AUVs, the Sailbouy made by Offshore Sensing, and the Seaglider, one of six AUVs made by Kongsberg Maritime, were developed and are now produced in Norway. The third AUV is the Waveglider, made by Liquid Robotics, a Boeing subsidiary, of Sunnyvale, Calif., and operated by Maritime Robotics of Norway. The results of the tests were promising. So now the data acquired are being analyzed. In March through October 2018, the AUVs again will be tested, prior to a six-year prototype operation period in which instrumentation and interfaces will be further developed to suit market needs.

In addition to meeting the design goals, the AUVs contribute to reducing the emissions and costs of acquiring data in metocean* studies, because they eliminate the need for using research vessels to chart the environmental parameters of sea areas.

Further reading: “Self-driving ships come in all sizes,” The Norwegian American, Oct. 5, 2017:

*metocean is a neologism lexicographers are now arguing about whether to include in dictionaries; in contemporary science, it refers to the syllabic abbreviation of meteorology and oceanography.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.