Between the sheer inaccessibility of the deep sea and its many dangers for a human operator, underwater environments represent the perfect testing ground for autonomous vehicle technology. One of the greatest challenges engineers have faced in this endeavor involves the volatile relationship between electrical components and water. Sophisticated machines require a sophisticated power supply that neither limits exploration nor puts technicians and equipment at risk. To fully understand this sentiment, it’s important to recognize the amazing innovations in unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) and the industrial applications driving the need for more reliable electrical connectivity.
Examples of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles
Unmanned undersea vehicles have become an essential part of defense, with the US and China making significant investments in them. The use of artificial intelligence makes them ideal for military applications, such as surveillance missions and collecting data.
Unmanned maritime vehicles (UMVs) can also use sonar to detect and track other submarines that could pose a potential threat in real time.
Remotely Operated Research Vessels
Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), or underwater gliders, can help scientists better understand deep-sea environments by mapping the depths of the ocean floor, measuring temperature, light and detecting the presence of life. They can even use unmanned systems to explore geological formations or shipwrecks.
AUVs for Oil and Gas
Before oil and gas companies can construct subsea infrastructure, they need to map the ocean floor. Remote-controlled autonomous underwater vehicles can take clear snapshots of the environment without putting anyone in danger.
5 Innovations in Unmanned Underwater Vehicles
1. Sophisticated Sensor Technology
Released in February 2021, HUGIN Endurance is an Automated Underwater Vehicle (AUV) equipped with decision-making capabilities. The vessel is built for long-range missions, including commercial and military surveying and maritime patrolling up to 1,100 km in a single trip. But the real marvel is its capacity to process and use data to handle edge cases that are as challenging as they are rare. With highly sophisticated surface and underwater sensor technology, the HUGIN Endurance is intelligent enough to make operational decisions around unexpected events or failures by using data to switch between redundant modes of operation.
2. Multi-Static Radar Systems
In addition to sophisticated sensor technology, unmanned underwater vehicles have adopted advanced sonar and radar systems for the detection and localization of underwater targets — particularly in situations with very low acoustical backscattering. Multiple monostatic radar technology offers several views from different angles, allowing technicians to survey and map underwater environments like the sea floor and view different aspects of a target at the same time with astounding resolution and quality. Due to the geometries involved in this kind of radar system, they require transmitter receiver pairs capable of high processing power compared to a single radar and an advanced level of data fusion to make sense of spatially-diverse signaling.
3. Automated Data Analysis
Beyond processing and transmitting data specific to a mission, the spatiotemporal complexity involved in currents, tides, topographic disturbances, pressure changes, and weather effects requires that unmanned underwater vehicles be capable of continuous and instantaneous change – a feat only possible with artificial intelligence. By integrating onboard sensors with other remote technologies, third-party sensors and AI, today’s most innovative unmanned underwater vehicles can interpret volumes of data, mimic human intuition and make decisions to refine maneuverability, respond to a failure or adapt to account for variable issues and elements.
4. Highly Articulated Maneuverability
Traditionally, underwater mobility has been hindered by cable-connected control stations, rendering them incapable of executing precise movement around marine life, shipwrecks, and other fragile obstacles. Today, engineers are taking pointers from sea creatures and exploring the use of biomimetic propulsion systems (propulsion that uses flapping fins rather than rotary propellers). Paired with refined software processing algorithms that collect and transmit huge amounts of data, underwater crafts are now capable of cable-free, highly articulated maneuverability, allowing humans to explore uncharted territory.
5. Battery Life & Power Charging Stations
Unmanned underwater vehicles -- particularly those equipped with the latest innovations -- are limited by the amount of power needed to operate. In many cases, a craft can only last about 24 hours before having to resurface, offload data and recharge. To improve mission durations, engineers have outfitted underwater vehicles like the HUGIN Endurance, with pressure-tolerant Li-Ion batteries that can power operations for up to 15 days without the support of a mothership.
Electrical Connectivity For Unmanned Underwater Vehicles
Though wireless charging technology exists, there is no substitute for the efficiency of cable-connected electric power charging, which presents its own set of challenges. Resurfacing is a calculated risk that requires time and energy. Taking electrical connections underwater is also a calculated risk. One of the most innovative advances in interconnect technology is the invention of niobium connectors, which allow technicians to mate and unmate electrical connectors while completely submerged in water.
When exposed to water, niobium contacts form their own passive film, which acts as an insulator that electrically isolates the contact from surrounding water. When mated, this film is removed, restoring the flow of power as soon as voltage is applied. iCONN System’s patented niobiCONN technology is the safest and most reliable way to form underwater electrical connections.
Learn more about our niobiCONN connectors.