Ask those in the tech sector about the latest hot devices and drones sit at the top of the “emerging product” category. It’s hard to miss all these devices zooming above the treetops these days but drones come in all shapes and sizes and don’t just cruise in the air. A sizzling part of this movement is underwater drones, which some forecasters are saying will become a $5.20 billion market by 2022 and see huge growth thereafter.
On the low end, underwater drones are already swimming into the market at a rapid clip from crowd-funded startups to small companies on a mission to solve specific problems. For example, there are consumer submersibles that locate fish, then shoot video of the underwater struggle for would-be anglers. In addition, a couple of young companies have developed underwater drones that zap lionfish — an invasive, non-native species rapidly destroying natives in the Atlantic — then vacuum them into a chamber for removal.
Unmanned underwater vehicles already have an established market among oceanographers, filmmakers and the military, but such devices have steep price tags starting at $20,000. Consumer submersibles at one-tenth the cost represent the biggest future for these devices, with the most successful drones being those not in the “toy” category, combining affordability with the rich feature set and capabilities of the pricey “professional” drones. Such promising devices will be able to address a variety of applications rather than just one, broadening their market.
These drones come equipped with cameras, which is part of the historic challenge of building such devices because sending images is much more difficult underwater than it is on land. In fact, the various technical demands of making high-performance underwater drones without the commensurate price tag has been the biggest factor in the past limiting the use of drones by the many researchers that would love to have them, according to experts like James Bellingham, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Center for Marine Robotics.
Just putting aerial drone technology into an underwater drone doesn’t result in success, as some Chinese manufacturers are discovering. The ocean affects hardware in many ways so designers who have some diving experience have a better perspective on currents, buoyancy, navigation and other elements. Also particularly helpful is coming from a nation with a long history with the sea such as Norway, which has spent most of its history exploring it, studying it and extracting things from it.
The good news is that we’re on the cusp of a revolution in high-performance underwater drones, with the first affordable models just now appearing. A key gating factor is how much less expensive technology has become, from computers to sensors, batteries and cameras. In addition, manufacturing electronic devices is now cheaper because everything is digitized and prototyping is simple and fast.
Meanwhile, innovations in the technical sphere are at their highest level, with engineers and programmers applying their knowledge to solve the challenges in designing underwater drones that can dive deeper, maneuver well, stand up to adverse ocean conditions and be as easy to use as a cellphone, tablet or PC — which are the emerging devices of choice to control the drone. When it comes to underwater cameras, light sensitivity is a big issue underwater but companies are writing new algorithms that enable low latency and overcome physical limitations like low light and not displaying full colors at lower depths.
Having such lower-cost devices is already beginning to transform some commercial applications such as underwater inspections — a prime area for underwater drones. Such robots perform shallow-water inspections but are also used by professionals for water, pipe, harbor and boat-hull inspections as well as underwater checks at offshore wind parks and aquaculture operations.
Less-costly drones are being used by schools and conservation groups to clean up our lakes and rivers and restore native wildlife to our waterways. These devices are also being used to help protect lives and improve safety as part of the mission of the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue, which works on accident prevention at sea in Norway and elsewhere.
Besides commercial and government applications, the powerful new generation of underwater drones is enabling more research to be performed by those whose budgets haven’t previously been large enough for such devices. For example, inexpensive robots are going under the ice in the Arctic to map algae blooms and, separately, to map litter on the ocean floor in a Norwegian fjord by the World Wildlife Fund.
Straddling the commercial and consumer sectors is the tourism industry, where there has been increasing interest by cruise lines and boat rental firms that want to offer lower-cost underwater drones as an engaging — and lucrative — add-on to delight customers exploring the waters. The timing is ideal, because interest in the oceans among consumers has been increasing. People are becoming aware of the beauty of the seas and the dangers they face due to environmental issues. Oceans cover 70% of the planet’s surface but we know less about the sea floor than we do about the surface of Mars.
Having affordable underwater robots opens the door to consumers so they can experience and appreciate the undersea environment, particularly among boat owners, who are focusing as much on the technologies and entertainment features of their watercraft as on the boat itself these days. More than half a million boats are built annually, 80% to 90% of them made in the United States, where about half of the close to 30 million privately owned boats reside.
With approximately a million such boats in existence costing more than $300,000 around the world today, less-expensive underwater drones would seem to have a large potential market. This includes for practical tasks like inspecting hulls for damage and algae growth as well as checking moorings but an even bigger use is likely to be irresistible entertainment — viewing sea creatures, shipwrecks and whatever else is in the deep without leaving the water’s surface. Such a device enables consumers to share video and images of their underwater adventures or store data for documentation of intriguing findings for mapping or monitoring.
Able to dive eight times deeper than the average scuba enthusiast — up to 150 meters — the new generation of underwater drones from companies such as Blueye Robotics lets consumers discover the unseen things in the ocean while developing a greater appreciation for this hidden world. Becoming an amateur oceanographer or underwater archaeologist, piloting a drone that could, say, spot undersea treasures or swim after and photograph rarer fish that stay in deeper water opens up an entirely new category for social media and YouTube. But best of all, exploring the undersea environment helps give people a personal stake in caring about and protecting what happens to the world’s oceans, which might be the most important benefit of the new generation of underwater drones when all is said and done.