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Stealth has long been a staple of the U.S. Navy’s most important national security operations. As such, many of these operations take place underwater, where submariners can discreetly eavesdrop on enemy forces and carry out missile strikes if necessary.

But things are changing, and crewed submarines are being replaced by drones 7 Industries Drones Are Set to Revolutionize 7 Industries Drones Are Set to Revolutionize Seven industries that are ready and braced to be (mostly positively) impacted – if not revolutionized – by drones. Read More .

Technology has disrupted just about every industry over the last couple of decades, and warfare is no exception: the U.S. government is now pouring significant resources into the development and deployment of unmanned undersea drones. And that comes as no surprise, considering the ubiquity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) 5 Amazing Uses For Drones In The Future 5 Amazing Uses For Drones In The Future Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones, are now infamous for their surveillance capabilities, but like most tools, the usefulness of a drone depends on who's in control. Read More .

The Need for UUVs

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are set to transform the way the U.S. military operates at sea — and the same goes for the 12+ other countries currently working on similar technology.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work discussed the high cost to staff, maintain, and replace manned submarines, predicting that we’ll see fewer and fewer in operation in the years ahead. “You can’t buy as many manned subs, so UUVs will be a means by which the U.S. will be able to maintain its undersea dominance even with a smaller number of manned submarines,” he said.

navy submarine


What will these underwater drones look like? A team of Singapore researchers led by Jianxin Xu recently revealed an eel-like design prototype that may have serious potential.

Why Eels?

One drone the U.S. Navy is looking at is the Slocum Glider, which resembles a torpedo. While that shape works well for missiles, the Slocum’s rigid, inflexible design and rear-facing propellers leave much to be desired for an unmanned vehicle. What happens when it runs into obstacles like underwater reefs? What if it needs to react quickly, make a sharp turn, or back up with little notice?

green moray eel

Nature is pretty good at figuring things out. Millions of years of natural selection See The Basics of Evolution & Natural Selection Explained In Minutes See The Basics of Evolution & Natural Selection Explained In Minutes YouTube channel Stated Clearly makes short work of explaining evolution and related concepts. Read More have shaped marine life into what it is today, so every species tends to be an expert in its particular environment. With that in mind, you can see why researchers are looking to nature in their quest to design the ultimate UUV.

By mimicking the agility of an eel, Xu’s drone would be able to maneuver seamlessly through small spaces (like reefs, underwater landscapes, and other obstacles). And, thanks to eel-like noiseless propulsion, it would be less detectable and consume less energy than previous models as well.

Anguilliform Locomotion: The Eel’s Secret Weapon

The Navy is looking at a wide range of animal-based design options including jellyfish, eels, and fish—but many experts agree that eels make the most sense and could become the most effective unmanned underwater vehicles.

What’s so special about the eel? Its swimming style.

Anguilliform locomotion (from the Latin anguilla for eel) involves a wave-like motion of the body that pushes water out of the way from side to side. Researchers writing for Nature in 2000 found that European eels can migrate from Europe to the Seagasso Sea with very little food, which demonstrates just how energy-efficient Energy Saving Tips For Buying & Using Electronics Energy Saving Tips For Buying & Using Electronics Electronics make up a significant portion of your household energy costs. Computers, printers, and WiFi routers alone account for around 25% of your electricity bill. While electronics are becoming more efficient, their increased use offsets... Read More anguilliform swimmers (like eels and sharks) are.

This particular swimming style has stealth advantages as well. It displaces water evenly, making it smoother and less detectable than its predecessors—an essential trait for military use.

But perhaps most importantly, an eel drone could be amphibious. The same movement that propels eels through water could move a drone forward on land, much like a snake. So, should it need to leave the water, it could do so without much trouble.

What Could Eel Drones Do?

Eel bots would be ideal for exploring reefs and underwater geological formations that submarines and other drones wouldn’t be able to access. They could serve many of the functions that today’s submarines perform at a much lower cost and perhaps more effectively.

The applications aren’t limited to the military, though. Marine biologists and explorers could use eel drones to study the uncharted depths of the ocean. Humans have yet to explore 95 percent of the underwater world, but the right UUV could help us lower that percentage significantly.

NASA could also use eel drones on space missions, reports:

“The connection between the robot and the rover also means that the snake robot will be able to assist the vehicle if the latter gets stuck,” said Pål Liljebäck, a researcher with the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research in Norway.

“In such a situation, the robot could lower itself to the ground and coil itself around a rock, enabling the rover to pull itself loose by means of the cable winch, which the rover would normally use to pull the snake robot towards the rover.”

As you can see, there are limitless real-world applications for eel drones. They’re set to change underwater military operations in big ways, but they also have a lot to add to sea and space exploration as well.

What do you think of Jianxin Xu’s eel drone? Can you think of any other applications for this technology? Let us know in the comments below!

Image Credit: Wikipedia, LASZLO ILYES, NOAA Ocean Explorer

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  1. Storm
    January 11, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Bobby, I have a degree in law and another in political science. Perhaps it's YOU that don't understand. The US is not different from others.
    They're making you think that you are, that you were destined to be the shining city on the hill or something, so you agree to these idiotic military policies that take money away from you, the people, and put it in the pockets of billionaires.
    But the point is, nothing gives you the right to impose your will to other peoples in order to keep your status of superpower. After 9/11 you could/should have tackled terrorism worldwide, and at that moment you had the whole world with you.
    But instead you attacked Iraq that had NOTHING to do with 9/11, encouraged the Arab revolts in north Africa and increased ties with Gulf States (who had A LOT) to do with it. I won't mention the criminal moves on Syria and the ISIS.
    The result is that we have more terrorism than before and globally we're far worse than years ago. Yet, not only you don't challenge these actions, you approve even more of them!!!

    Shawn, first of all you should count ALL the dead and not only the US one (In Afghanistan the Afghans lost over 6500, then there were the Italians, UKs etc). Then keep in mind that the point is: Vietnam shouldn't have happened in the first place!!! Iraq shouldn't have happened!
    As long as you Americans are so overconfident in your military technology you will ALWAYS consider every war worth fighting, because you will think that you can win it and that you will pay a small and affordable price in lives for it. But wars should be avoided whenever possible and money should be spent to tackle the REASONS that cause them! (which are, greed, poverty, sickness, thirst, lack of affordable energy or clean water, and so on)

  2. Shawn
    January 5, 2015 at 12:03 am

    I do not completely disagree; however, the money is a substitute for lives. We have had 2 recent wars of 10 years or more, the difference is lives.
    Causalities (so far) in Iraq & Afghanistan = 6000
    Vietnam allied military deaths = 282,000

    A. I wish he had never went there
    B. Send Money, not boys and girls

  3. Storm
    January 3, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    I think that the quote "the U.S. will be able to maintain its undersea dominance" is sickening, just as it's sickening every quote from every politician and military officer of the US that openly and proudly state that they're going to mantain military supremacy to win the next American wars.
    US already spend by themselves more for weapons than the rest of the world combined. Nobody is seriously challenging its supremacy and it will be like that for a lot of time.
    If only the US spent more on trying to AVOID fighting future wars, and trying to build a better world for themselves (the poverty rate is still high) and the other humans, removing the reasons behind hate directed (reasonably or unreasonably) at America, they (and we) would all be happier.

    • Brad Merrill
      January 4, 2015 at 3:15 am

      I can't say I disagree with you.

    • Bobby
      January 8, 2015 at 9:49 pm

      That's ignorance. Perhaps if you understood the principles that make the US different than EVERY other nation in the world (including the UK which does not have our 1st amendment), than you would be proud to know that our people are working hard to maintain their place politically in the world.

      Reading your post, a person might come to the conclusion that the world was a better place before the US. existed. If you think that way, there is nothing I can say other than you should go spend some time reading history to determine if there has ever been peace within humanity.

      By the way, America is not responsible for the rest of the world (that's called Imperialism).