Mapping our oceans with autonomous vehicles
Maritime Oil and gas Food

Huge swathes of our oceans are unmapped but autonomous solutions are set to give us unprecedented insight into the most difficult to access corners of our planet. 

It won’t just be unmanned drones exploring the deep ocean on our behalf, but rather underwater, surface and air vehicles will work together to complete joint missions.  They will be equipped with highly efficient propulsion systems, and a diverse range of sensing hardware and advanced communications technologies.  This will provide a novel framework for exploring, monitoring and interacting with the ocean space, enabling cost-efficient data gathering and extraction in remote regions1. By integrating various types of vehicles into a system, a broader and more detailed picture of the investigated phenomenon can be provided. Based on the autonomy level, there will be different requirements to onboard technology like sensors, analytics, AI algorithms and actuators2. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can also act as data-mules if there is a lack of high-speed communication. Data-muling UAVs are networking nodes capable of collecting data, keeping it and delivering it when a destination is reached3.

Autonomous systems are important both for mapping and monitoring of the oceans as well as offshore operations and they are, in many cases, a prerequisite for being able to harvest ocean-based resources in many locations4.

In addition, as demands for safety, security and productivity increase, and further progress is made on miniaturisation, motion control and cognition sensing, it is expected that the use of robots will expand for inspection, repair and maintenance as well.

Ten times cheaper than traditional research vessels

The technology is to a large extent available, and as costs come down and when reliability is manifested the implementation will start to take off. The implementation will most likely go stepwise towards more and more automation3. Mapping, exploration and monitoring will have a faster uptake of the take technology compared to installations for resource harvesting due to long life time of existing structures and long project lead times.

The deployment of autonomous marine systems can enable cost-effective data gathering in remote regions of the ocean space. The cost of autonomous systems for data gathering is expected to reduce to a tenth of the traditional research vessel1. These systems can also facilitate exploration of vast subsea resources and improve the understanding of the ocean environment and how to protect it against damaging human activity such as pollution and over-exploitation. Due to the wide range of applications and cost efficiency, autonomous systems are expected to be utilised by governments, research organisations and associated ocean-based industries such for exploration and monitoring.

Autonomous operations of platforms will enable operations in more remote areas and in harsher environments, where safety of personnel is a major issue.

Slowed down by regulation and uncertain costs

The implementation and application of the technology is dependent on development of regulatory frameworks, which currently is lagging. In addition, there are business model uncertainties associated with capital and operational costs of autonomous systems when compared to the value of the data acquired.


Main author: Erik Hektor

Editor: Peter Lovegrove

  1. Global Marine Technology Trends 2030.
  3. Zolich, Artur. Systems Integration and Communication in Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles in Marine Environments. Doctoral Thesis at NTNU; 2018:359.
  4. OECD. The Ocean Economy in 2030
Delve deeper into the next decade Read more technology and trend articles here
Technology Outlook 2030 report cover
Download the Technology Outlook 2030 summary Click here