Solutions in Depth

What is an ROV?

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are a safe and widely used type of underwater vehicle serving a range of military, commercial, and scientific needs.

Using a series of propellors, ROVs are unoccupied, highly maneuverable underwater robots operated by a person on the surface.  An “umbilical” cable carries power and and control signals to the vehicle and video, status and other sensory data back to the operators.

Most ROVs are equipped with at least one video camera and lights. Additional equipment may include one or more sonars, a stills camera, a manipulator or cutting arm and a wide range of sampling options.

When larger systems are used in current a tether management system (TMS) allows the ROV to be deployed to depth using a strong but heavy umbilical cable and then flown out from the TMS using a lighter, more flexible cable.

ROVs provide virtually unlimited bottom time and have high bandwidth for high-resolution video and data transmission. These systems have precise navigational control and tracking which makes them ideal tools for conducting underwater research and surveys.

ROVs can vary in size from small vehicles fitted with one TV camera, which are used for simple observation, to complex systems incorporating dexterous manipulators, video cameras, mechanical tools and other equipment. They are generally free flying, but some are bottom-founded running on tracks or wheels.

ROVs were first used by the military in the 1960s.  The United States Navy is credited with advancing the technology to an operational state in its quest to develop robots to recover underwater ordnance lost during at-sea tests. ROVs gained prominence when US Navy CURV (Cable Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle) systems recovered an atomic bomb lost off Palomares, Spain, in an aircraft accident in 1966, and then saved the pilots of the sunken submersible Pisces off Cork, Ireland in 1973, with only minutes of air remaining in the submersible.

By the 1980s, ROVs were becoming widely used by the offshore oil and gas industry. Since then, designs have evolved and capabilities increased so that ROVs can operate at greater depths, carry much higher-resolution cameras, more sensitive sonar, and more capable manipulator arms. They can be controlled from the surface using fiber optics communication systems. Depending upon an ROV’s size and capabilities, price tags can range from a few thousand to several million dollars.