The first AUV was developed at the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington as early as 1957 by Stan Murphy, Bob Francois and later on, Terry Ewart. The "Special Purpose Underwater Research Vehicle", or SPURV, was used to study diffusion, acoustic transmission, and submarine wakes.

Other early AUVs were developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s. One of these is on display in the Hart Nautical Gallery in MIT. At the same time, AUVs were also developed in the Soviet Union (although this was not commonly known until much later).

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) development began in the early 60’s with vehicles such as Rebikoff’s SEA SPOOK, and the Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington’s SPURV (Self-Propelled Underwater Research Vehicle). They were followed by many others, unfortunately, most of these early AUVs were either large, inefficient, expensive, or a combination of all three. While the ROVs were beginning to gain in maturity in the early 1980’s, AUV technology was essentially in its infancy. ROVs have the attributes of a brain (the human operator) attached via a long nervous system (the umbilical) and brawn (hydraulic power), which is provided by heavy duty electro-hydraulic power systems to thrusters, tools and manipulators. Conversely, AUVs are required to carry their brain and brawn with them, a requirement that, in the early 1980’s, left them waiting for advances in computer technology and energy storage. The good news is that during the last twenty-odd years of continued development, the brains and brawn have begun to arrive.

Today, a minimum of 66 different AUVs are under development or are operational in at least 12 different countries, although some countries are purchasing an initial capability. For example, China and Korea (see Daewoo Heavy Industry’s OKPO AUV to the left) have purchased their AUVs from Russia’s Institute of Marine Technology Problems (IMTP). In Europe, consortia such as MAST and NERC are underwriting the costs of AUVs like SIRENE and AUTOSUB. And in the U.S., the most significant developments have been undertaken by the military, where overall investments will reach hundreds of millions of dollars once the Near-Term Mine Reconnaissance System (NMRS) and Long-Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) reach operational status.

Vehicles have been developed that range from Robo-Lobster and Robo-Tuna up to the mammoth DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.S.) UUVs. The offshore oil industry is looking at AUVs, such as the Hugin being used by Norway’s Statoil, to lower the cost of operations in many areas. Japan is planning an AUV to reach the depths of the Mariana Trench and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, U.S.) is developing AUVs to bore through the ice and investigate the seas of other planets and moons. And, critical breakthroughs are coming out of academia at institutions such as Florida Atlantic University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where the high cost barriers of AUV development are being broken down. The future will undoubtedly see vast networks of "innerspace satellites" that autonomously roam the ocean gathering data in a wide variety of applications.