Naval Oceanography: At the Leading Edge of Unmanned Systems

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May 3, 2023 | Originally published by Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command on March 13, 2023

One of the premier innovators of the fields of meteorology and oceanography, the Navy is also a trailblazer in unmanned systems, notably METOC’s use of air, sea surface, and under­water craft.

The U.S. Navy’s development of unmanned systems dates to the Pioneer Era of Aviation. In 1911, the Navy contracted Elmer Sperry, inventor of the gyroscope (critical for stabili­zation of all aircraft, manned and unmanned), to begin work on systems that would be used to usher in the first controlled unmanned airplanes. In September 1917, during the height of World War I, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, which the Navy called an “aerial torpedo,” took flight. The craft was one of the first unmanned aerial vehicles in history to fly. Just a few years later, in 1921, the Navy repurposed the battleship USS Iowa (BB-4) as a remotely controlled craft. Officially designated “Coast Battleship No. 4,” the vessel, one of the world’s first military unmanned surface vehicles, was used as a target ship. Decades later, the Navy helped develop, fully funded, and operated the world’s first under­water unmanned vehicle. Called the Self-Propelled Underwater Research Vehicle, or SPURV, the program began in 1957 and was used to gather hydrographic information.

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