Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) have been with us since the late ’90s. For the most part they have been deployed far from cruising regions or in highly managed and tracked test & evaluation mode in tightly constrained areas. Now, the oceanographic community is nearing autonomously deploying them waters less than 30 meters deep.
The Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) is just getting started (with coastal gliders) and has just awarded a contract for SLOCUM G2 gliders to Teledyne Webb Research specifically designed to operate, “where the total water depth is less than 30 meters.”*
After several hours of research, I cannot find any comforting information on how ocean gliders, in general, manage collision avoidance — software gets mentioned, acoustics gets mentioned and shipping is characterized as a threat to gliders (less so the other way around). Something tells me ocean gliders may be close to blind when it comes to a sailboat, sailing.†
For the most part, they would only be a danger for a miniscule part of their mission time — surfaced for communications or persistently floating due to a malfunction or awaiting pick up. None the less, the small ones could generate quite a thud on impact; the large ones could be about the sames as hitting another boat. US Navy AUV, called U(nderwater)U(nmanned)V, can be as large as 20k pounds.
Warnings of Navy UUV operations appear to be pretty rare. One warning I found for SLOCUM glider operations was as follows:
Underwater Vehicle Deployed in Maine:
The Slocum Glider, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), will be deployed for oceanographic research tentatively from 27 September 2010 through 25 October 2010. The Slocum Glider will transect the Gulf of Maine using the following waypoints while alternating between the surface and 180 meters depth: 43-33.18N 069-45.50W, 43-28.15N 068-59.98W, 43-35.00N 66-45.00W, 43-28.15N 68-59.98W, 43-33.18N 69-45.50W. [below] All mariners are advised to exercise caution while transiting this area. (First District LNM 40)
Yet another reason to be semper vigilans.
*Ocean News and Technology Vol 17, Issue 3, April 2011
†Let me be clear. I find AUV fascinating, and if I was starting another career, this work would be high on my list. This is about heads’ up seamanship. A good summary paper on AUV can be found here (pdf download).