Darrell Dexter had every reason to smile. Just weeks before, Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax had won the rights to negotiate with the federal government to building the Navy’s $25 billion future combat fleet, and now he was standing before another defence audience to talk about a sector showing strong potential.

Unmanned systems – land, air or sea – will never match the dollars generated by the shipbuilding industry in Atlantic Canada, but the Premier of Nova Scotia couldn’t help not notice the sector’s rapid innovation and growth in only a few short years: “We’re investing future money in future jobs,” he said.

Over the course of a warm early November week in Halifax, Unmanned Systems Canada drew a modest but diverse audience to its ninth annual conference. Like the industry it represents, the association has seen steady growth as the applications for unmanned systems gain acceptance.

While presentations on the air side highlighted mission success by Herons, Predators, ScanEagles and Global Hawks and speculated about the next generation of Mantis, Talarion and Telemos, on the marine side an intriguing consensus was emerging: underwater vehicles are primed for a giant leap forward.

Like the unmanned aerial vehicles half a decade ago that faced a sceptical aviation community and had to prove their indispensable value on missions, underwater systems have finally overcome much of the initial resistance from within the submariner community and are finding a receptive audience across navies.

Rear-Admiral Dave Gardem, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, is one believer. In a keynote address, he pointed to the steady rise of UAVs from a handful in the first Gulf war to thousands by the end of the current Iraq war. Much of that growth was driven by a “clear and present” need for more information, something navies are also demanding. But with 85 percent of bandwidth on most ships currently being used for enterprise systems, “there will never be enough cable,” he said. “We need to use technology to pull information.”

To improve situational awareness, especially in the Arctic, he suggested both underwater and aerial vehicles could help deliver a much more complete picture than is available at present. He also argued for the use of underwater vehicles at strategic “choke points” in the Arctic.

The two biggest challenges, he said, were the human interface with the systems and their data streams, and the regulations that currently prohibit military surveillance over domestic waters, a challenge that requires a broader whole-of-government approach to domain awareness.

As a next step in this process, Gardem said HMCS Charlottetown would be the first Canadian frigate to deploy with an unmanned aerial vehicle in its arsenal when it heads back to the Middle East in January – the bird was later confirmed to be the Boeing ScanEagle, developed by Insitu – while HMCS St. John’s would be testing concepts of operations for UAVs in the north when it next deploys to the Arctic.

Though both operations involve aerial vehicles, underwater vessels may not be far behind.

“Underwater vehicles are ready for prime time,” said Dr. Rand LeBouvier, a retired U.S. navy captain and now head of government and military business development for Bluefin Robotics. He noted that it took 10 years of experience and experimentation to see the level of maturation now evident in the UAV industry, and underwater systems are poised to make similar gains.

However, if the ‘aha’ moment for UAVs was war, he believes that moment for underwater systems will be commercial adoption. But that won’t happen unless navies demonstrate their utility, and right now most systems are “sitting on shelves.”

“The future is commercial” and if commercial sectors do not take advantage of gains made by the military, “the military [sector] will not have a future,” he said of all unmanned systems.

Underwater vehicles face some unique challenges, notably communications, so they “have to be very autonomous” with few requirements for reach back to an operator, LeBouvier noted. On aerial vehicles, platforms have driven sensors; underwater, “we want sensors pushing this world.” And that should give small companies an edge, he added.

What does success look like? Look no further than Canada’s use of an autonomous underwater vehicle to help determine the foot of the North American continental shelf in the western Arctic as part of Project Cornerstone.