Exactly who to credit with developing the first ROV will probably remain clouded, however, there are two who deserve credit. The PUV (Programmed Underwater Vehicle) was a torpedo developed by Luppis-Whitehead Automobile in Austria in 1864, however, the first tethered ROV, named POODLE, was developed by Dimitri Rebikoff in 1953.

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.

The US Navy funded most of the early ROV technology development in the 1960s into what was then named a "Cable-Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle" (CURV). This created the capability to perform deep-sea rescue operation and recover objects from the ocean floor, such as a nuclear bomb lost in the Mediterranean Sea after the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash and then saved the pilots of a sunken submersible off Cork, Ireland, the Pisces in 1973, with only minutes of air remaining.

The next step in advancing the technology was performed by commercial firms that saw the future in ROV support of offshore oil operations. Building on this technology base; the offshore oil & gas industry created the work class ROVs to assist in the development of offshore oil fields. Two of the first ROVs developed for offshore work were the RCV-225 and the RCV-150 developed by HydroProducts in the U.S. Many other firms developed a similar line of small inspection vehicles.More than a decade after they were first introduced, ROVs became essential in the 1980s when much of the new offshore development exceeded the reach of human divers. During the mid 1980s the marine ROV industry suffered from serious stagnation in technological development caused in part by a drop in the price of oil and a global economic recession. Since then, technological development in the ROV industry has accelerated and today ROVs perform numerous tasks in many fields. Their tasks range from simple inspection of subsea structures, pipeline and platforms to connecting pipelines and placing underwater manifolds. They are used extensively both in the initial construction of a sub-sea development and the subsequent repair and maintenance.

With ROVs working as deep as 10,000 feet in support of offshore oil and other tasks, the technology has reached a level of cost effectiveness that allows organizations from police departments to academic institutions to operate vehicles that range from small inspection vehicles to deep ocean research systems.

It was once thought that something thrown into the ocean was lost and gone forever, however, organizations such as Mitsui and JAMSTEC in Japan have ended that vision. With the development of their ultra-deep ROV Kaiko (photo at right), they have reached the deepest part of the ocean - the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, at 10,909 meters. A record to be tied, but never exceeded.