US Navy Debuts First Underwater Drone Squadron

By Jeremy Hsu | September 30, 2017 2:20 pm
Cmdr. Scott Smith, from Hartford, South Dakota, delivers remarks during the establishment ceremony for Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron (UUVRON) 1.

Cmdr. Scott Smith, from Hartford, South Dakota, delivers remarks during the establishment ceremony for Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron (UUVRON) 1. UUVRON 1 was originally a detachment that fell under commander, Submarine Development Squadron 5. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda R. Gray

The U.S. Navy has taken another step forward in deploying swarms of underwater drones for both scientific and military purposes. This past week, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center officially recognized the Navy’s first Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron as likely the first of many military units dedicated to making use of undersea robots.

Much of the Navy’s existing underwater drone fleet with its scientific survey focus is operated by the Military Sealift Command on behalf of the Naval Oceanographic Office. By comparison, the newly inaugurated Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron (UUVRON) 1 may take on a wider array of duties that include supporting U.S. Navy surface warships and submarines or someday directly engaging in combat with enemy vessels. The squadron is based on an unmanned undersea vehicles detachment of the Submarine Development Squadron (DEVRON) 5, which had already been operating for more than a year before getting official recognition as its own squadron.

“Today we are transitioning our UUV detachment into the first UUV squadron,” said Capt. Robert Gaucher, former commander of  DEVRON 5, during the ceremony. “Why is this historical? It’s because in standing up UUVRON 1, it shows our Navy’s commitment to the future of unmanned systems and undersea combat.”

The U.S. Navy’s gradual buildup of an underwater drone fleet—mostly smaller vehicles resembling torpedo-shaped tubes with fins—has mostly taken place without receiving the same media and public attention usually reserved for the U.S. military’s use of flying drones such as the Predator and Reaper. One exception came back in December 2016, when a Chinese naval ship made international headlines by grabbing a U.S. Navy unmanned submersible being used for oceanographic surveys. President Trump, still U.S. President-Elect at the time, weighed in on Twitter: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back-[sic] let them keep it!”

China did actually end up returning the underwater drone. But the U.S. Navy seems intent on expanding the mission of its underwater drones beyond oceanographic surveys for collecting data on ocean temperature and depth. The Navy has already been working with companies such as Bluefin Robotics and Hydroid on developing underwater drones to detect explosive sea mines–a job previously done in part by trained dolphins and sea lions. If U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programs are any indication, a next step for underwater drones could involve hunting down and tracking enemy submarines.

Whether they swim or fly, drones have been on the mind of the U.S. Navy for quite a long time. About 100 years ago during World War I, the U.S. Navy converted explosive torpedoes into flying biplanes known as “aerial torpedoes.”

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Somethings must render the devices sonar and propulsion stealthy. Mammals arrive OEM SOP. Will the devices be autonomous or guided?
    If guided, squids or gamers?

    One would do well to add a nasty autodestruct if interdicted, but resistant to CRM-114 Discriminator failure.

  • TLongmire

    Just a matter of time before the fishing industry utilities them. Hopefully “archeologists” crisscross the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea and find ancient cities that force “our” history to be rewritten. Göbekli Tepe didn’t just appear from nowhere after all.

  • Maia

    Just NO. No drones in the air, no drones in the water.

    • StanChaz

      It’s in the Constitution- the right to bear drones. And anyway, it’s not drones that kill people, it’s people. So let’s ban people instead…

      • Maia

        Well, what a breath of fresh air…and water. Thank you, SC!

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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