Autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is a robot that travels underwater without requiring input from an operator. AUVs constitute part of a larger group of undersea systems known as unmanned underwater vehicles, a classification that includes non-autonomous remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) – controlled and powered from the surface by an operator/pilot via an umbilical or using remote control.
In military applications an AUV is more often referred to as an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV). Underwater gliders are a subclass of AUVs.
Vehicles range in size from man portable lightweight AUVs to large diameter vehicles of over 10 metres length. Large vehicles have advantages in terms of endurance and sensor payload capacity; smaller vehicles benefit significantly from lower logistics (for example: support vessel footprint; launch and recovery systems).
The first AUV was developed at the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington as early as 1957 by Stan Murphy, Bob Francois and later on, Terry Ewart.
The “Special Purpose Underwater Research Vehicle”, or SPURV, was used to study diffusion, acoustic transmission, and submarine wakes.
This type of underwater vehicles has recently become an attractive alternative for underwater search and exploration since they are cheaper than manned vehicles.
Over the past years, there have been abundant attempts to develop underwater vehicles to meet the challenge of exploration and extraction programs in the oceans. Recently, researchers have focused on the development of AUVs for long-term data collection in oceanography and coastal management.
Scientists use AUVs to study lakes, the ocean, and the ocean floor. A variety of sensors can be affixed to AUVs to measure the concentration of various elements or compounds, the absorption or reflection of light, and the presence of microscopic life.
Examples include conductivity-temperature-depth sensors (CTDs), fluorometers, and pH sensors. Additionally, AUVs can be configured as tow-vehicles to deliver customized sensor packages to specific locations.
The oil and gas industry uses AUVs to make detailed maps of the seafloor before they start building subsea infrastructure; pipelines and sub sea completions can be installed in the most cost effective manner with minimum disruption to the environment.
Many roboticists construct AUVs as a hobby. Several competitions exist which allow these homemade AUVs to compete against each other while accomplishing objectives. Like their commercial brethren, these AUVs can be fitted with cameras, lights, or sonar.
As a consequence of limited resources and inexperience, hobbyist AUVs can rarely compete with commercial models on operational depth, durability, or sophistication.
Autonomous underwater vehicles, for example AUV ABYSS, have been used to find wreckages of missing airplanes, e.g. Air France Flight 447, and the Bluefin-21 AUV was used in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.