The global underwater drones market was worth USD 4,545 million in 2021. It is projected to reach USD 12,500 million by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 11.9% during the forecast period (2022–2030). Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), commonly referred to as underwater drones, are vehicles that can operate in the ocean and sea without a human occupant. The two main categories of these machines are remotely used underwater vehicles (ROVs), directed by a distant human operator throughout their operations, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which can operate independently without any real-time human inputs. Technological advancements in unmanned underwater vehicles, such as high-resolution cameras, superior manipulator arms, and highly sensitive sonar have reduced the time needed to inspect equipment and other submerged items. This has created an ocean of opportunity in the underwater drones market.
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The military has recently started utilizing underwater drones for observation and inspection, including in the US and the UK. The US Navy, for instance, considers underwater drones to be a crucial component of their military strategy. The autonomous underwater vehicle requirement for 2025 study from the US Department of Defense (DoD) states that submarine-based underwater drones will be employed over time to extend the effective range of the submarine's weapons and sensors.
A network for underwater monitoring, investigation, and information gathering can be established using unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) or drones. These drones are beneficial when performing risky tasks like mine countermeasures. Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron One, the US Navy's first underwater-only drone unit, was established in 2017. Additionally, the US and the UK performed the first unmanned warrior drill in Scotland in 2016 when drones from several countries were structured to function as a unit. It is anticipated that the growing use of underwater drones for military purposes would fuel the market expansion during the projected period.
Unsustainable marine resource extraction negatively influences the oceans, causing pollution and a collapse in fish stocks worldwide. The marine ecology has been damaged by land-based pollution, habitat degradation, climate change, and unsustainable resource extraction. Over the years, scientists and experts have created a bottom-up campaign to address the declining health of the oceans, which ultimately led the United Nations General Assembly to announce a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030) in 2017. As a result, governments and scientists are becoming more conscious of the oceans' dramatic loss in health and resource availability.
Solving strategies supported by science and technology are needed to improve ocean management. Unmanned, highly controllable underwater vehicles known as underwater drones can be used to check seas while piloted remotely (ROVs) or entirely autonomous (AUVs). Drones for underwater photography and videography are outfitted with lighting, still, and video cameras. Drones can also be equipped with auxiliary equipment for collecting samples, such as cutting arms, water samplers, and temperature and clarity monitoring devices. Drone-collected data can be beneficial for studying the waters and developing conservation strategies.
For instance, researchers working on the Nansen Legacy project identified and measured a process crucial to the ocean's heat budget north of Svalbard using underwater drones. The General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) and the Nippon Foundation of Japan collaborated on the Seabed 2030 project, which was introduced in 2017 and aims to produce a map of the world's ocean floor by 2030. It gathers bathymetric data using underwater drones flown by different organizations. The growing usage of underwater drones in oceanographic research is anticipated to fuel the market during the forecast period.
The deployment of AUVs faces many difficulties, including those related to communication and navigation. Information is typically communicated using radio waves in underwater touch (for instance, submarine communications). In a vacuum or air, radio signals, such as those generated by GPS navigation devices, move at the speed of light. However, because the light is absorbed by water several times more than by air, radio signals cannot go farther underwater, making them unsuitable for underwater communications.
The underwater drone navigation must rely on several communication technologies, such as high-power inertial navigation sensors (INS), which are quite pricey and cost thousands of dollars, to get over these difficulties with radio wave communications. As a result, it is predicted that over the projected period, communication issues in deep water will restrain the development of underwater drones.
To upgrade the naval forces amid the rise in conflicts and tensions with neighboring countries, several countries in Asia-Pacific are focusing on the procurement and development of underwater drones to be at par with the increase in capabilities of the other naval forces. For instance, the Indian Navy is looking to develop and incorporate underwater drones in its weaponry to keep an eye on China's growing footprint in the Indian Ocean. In line with the strategy, the Indian Navy procured four HUGIN AUV systems (manufactured by Kongsberg Maritime) in September 2020. Furthermore, several start-up companies (e.g., IROV Technologies) are also developing underwater drones, creating umpteen growth opportunities for the underwater drones market.
The government of South Korea launched the Defense Reform 2.0 project on July 27, 2018. This policy played a significant role in developing advanced underwater drones to strengthen the naval forces' defense competencies. The South Korean Navy requires upgraded technologies amid the rising defense capabilities of North Korea. The rise in the adoption of underwater drones to upgrade and modernize the military forces in developing nations is expected to foster the growth of the underwater drones market during the forecast period.
The global underwater drones market share is segmented into type, propulsion system, application, product type, and region.
Type-wise, the global underwater drones market is divided into Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV), Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV), and Hybrid Vehicles.
Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) is expected to dominate the market, growing at a CAGR of 9.6% during the forecast period. With the continuous technological advancements, state-of-the-art equipment is being incorporated into the ROVs to enhance their capabilities to a more significant extent. The miniaturization of ROVs is another major trend in the market. The rise in demand for oil & gas is expected to influence the direction of ROVs over the years. ROVs have expedited the expansion of oil & gas exploration in deeper water. By allowing access to difficult zones under the oceans, ROVs have enhanced the exploration activities for handling complex operations in deep water.
Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) are the fastest-growing segment. AUVs are purchased in significant quantities for security and defense objectives. AUVs are used more frequently by the naval forces of numerous nations, including the US, China, Canada, and France, for operations, including mine countermeasure missions. New AUV models have been introduced in recent years that can carry out their activities for extended periods and collect more data. Such factors drive the segment growth.
Propulsion system-wise, the global underwater drones market is segmented into Electric Systems, Mechanical Systems, and Hybrid Systems.
The Electric System is expected to dominate the market, growing at a CAGR of 12.3% during the forecast period. Advancements in electrical motor technology have increased the number of electrical propulsion ROV & AUV systems. Electric motors are compact and efficient and have a high-power density. They also permit effective operations across a wide range of rotations per minute (RPM), which is favorable for vehicles deployed across several operating surroundings, as with ROVs and AUVs. In recent years, electric motors have become significantly compact due to advancements in electromagnetic designs and permanent magnet materials, among other noteworthy factors. Furthermore, the environmental damage caused by hydraulics, such as leaking fluids and venting, contributes to the increased preference for electric underwater drones worldwide.
The Hybrid System is expected to grow significantly during the forecast period. The rise in exploration of ocean resources is pushing the requirements for long-enduring underwater drones. A reliable approach to decreasing underwater drones' energy consumption is using variable buoyancy systems (VBS) as a substitute or counterpart to thrusters. Full-electric underwater drones are quite effective in shallow depths, as lower forces are required. On the other hand, the electrohydraulic solutions are more efficient for higher-depth surroundings, making them suitable for high-pressure applications. Such factors contribute to segment growth.
Application-wise, the global underwater drones market is segmented into Defense & Security, Scientific Research, Commercial Exploration, and Others.
The Defense & Security application is expected to be the largest segment, growing at a CAGR of 12.2% during the forecast period. Underwater drones are increasingly being adopted by organizations responsible for ocean rescue and port security. ROVs/AUVs are adequate for scanning and observation purposes. Underwater drones benefit many defense and security applications, such as port security, criminal investigations, search & recovery, training, and others. Armed forces are buying underwater drones to improve their operational capabilities.
Commercial Exploration is the second-largest segment. With the technological developments in underwater drones, the capabilities of ROVs and AUVs have grown considerably over the years. Manufacturers such as Oceaneering Inc., ECA group, Saab SeaEye Ltd., and Kongsberg Maritime offer a wide range of oil & gas exploration underwater drones. Pipelines regularly need an inspection, as leaks in the pipelines can lead to terrible catastrophes on offshore structures. The leaks also cause water degradation. Regular maintenance and assessment using underwater drones can prevent leaks and pipeline degradation. Underwater drones capture the images of the pipelines and alert the authorities to perform preventive measures to avoid leakage.
Product type-wise, the global underwater drones market is segmented into Micro, Small & Medium, Light Work-Class, and Heavy Work-Class.
The Light Work-Class segment is expected to dominate the market, growing at a CAGR of 11.9% during the forecast period. Light work-class underwater drones can be used during inspections to make repairs. Extensions such as laser scanners or dedicated inspection devices and sensors can be added to the underwater vehicle. These drones are used for commercial, defense & security, and scientific applications.
Small & Medium underwater drones are expected to grow significantly during the forecast period. These are mainly used for observation and inspection applications in the research, military, or recreational sectors as they can only endure shallow waters (around 300 meters) and have limited power. Small and medium ROVs/AUVs, for instance, Saab SeaEye’s Falcon, Cougar-XT Compact, and Sea Wasp, are usually deployed for defense operations. Small & medium underwater drones are propelled by electric motors, and hence, the demand for battery-powered small & medium underwater drones is expected to grow considerably over the years.
Region-wise, the global underwater drones market share is analyzed across North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, and LAMEA.
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North America is the highest shareholder and is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 11.5% during the forecast period. The demand for underwater drones in North America is primarily driven by a rise in the procurement of ROVs and AUVs for military modernization. Furthermore, the need for underwater drones in the North American oil & gas industry for offshore drilling, inspection, and surveying the oil & gas reserves has increased the sales of underwater drones over the years.
Asia-Pacific is the fastest-growing region. China is increasing its military dominance in the region. It sends underwater drones across different places for spying purposes to better understand other countries' military activities and developments. Consequently, India and Japan have started developing and procuring underwater drones in the region to counter the rise in interference from the Chinese army.
Europe is the second-largest region in the global underwater drones market. It is estimated to reach USD 3,930 million, growing at a CAGR of 12.2% during the forecast period. In major countries like Germany, France, and the UK, the armies are strengthening their forces by acquiring and developing underwater drones, driving the market growth.