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Iran tries to steal a Saildrone

Mark Parker



A screenshot from a U.S. Navy video showing an Iranian Revolutionary Guard support ship towing a Saildrone.

A company operating a facility in St. Petersburg’s Maritime Defense and Technology Hub narrowly avoided having one of its unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) hijacked on the open seas.

The U.S. Navy announced Aug. 30 that it foiled an attempt by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) to steal a Saildrone Explorer. One of the benefits of utilizing uncrewed vessels is also a potential weakness, as no personnel is onboard to prevent piracy.

However, the USS 5th Fleet, which operates the USV in the Arabian Gulf, observed the IRGCN support ship Shahid Baziar towing the Saildrone in an attempt to capture it. The USS Thunderbolt was patrolling nearby and immediately responded, along with an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter based in Bahrain.

“IRGCN’s actions were flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, in a statement.

“U.S. naval forces remain vigilant and will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows while promoting rules-based international order throughout the region.”

A Saildrone USV sits outside its ocean mapping headquarters at St. Pete’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Photo by Mark Parker.

While headquartered in Alameda, California, Saildrone conducts ocean mapping operations from the St. Petersburg Innovation District’s waterfront Hub. In partnership with the neighboring National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it launched a pair of USVs from Tampa Bay Aug. 2 to collect and transmit hurricane data.

Saildrone declined to comment on the incident.

According to the release, the Saildrone Explorer Iran attempted to confiscate – not deployed from St. Petersburg – is U.S. government property, and its sensors, radars and cameras are for navigation and data collection purposes. The Navy stated that the USV does not store sensitive or classified information onboard.

Saildrone Explorers are 23-foot-long, 16-foot-tall, and rely on solar power and wind propulsion. Its average speed is three knots, and the USV can operate for 12 months without needing maintenance or refueling, although a human pilot continuously supervises the vessels via satellite.

The Navy began operating Saildrones in the Arabian Gulf in January, and this is the first reported case of attempted theft.

“The professionalism and competence of the crew of the USS Thunderbolt prevented Iran from this illegal action,” Gen. Michael “Eric” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, in a statement.

According to Saildrone’s website, the USVs utilize machine learning models to provide real-time visual detection of targets not transmitting their position. Once detected, onboard computer processors integrate the camera data with other information sources, such as radar and acoustics, “to deliver a fully informed picture of the surrounding maritime domain.”

The Navy stated that the 5th Fleet operates a network of unmanned systems according to international law, and integration of the USVs and artificial intelligence enhances maritime capabilities for U.S. forces and international partners in Middle Eastern waters.

During an online discussion in March, Cooper said Task Force 59, which oversees USV operations, “has exceeded our every expectation.”

“Our goal is to have 100 of these USVs patrolling around the waters of the Middle East by the summer of 2023,” said Cooper. “We’re going to find ourselves in a pretty good spot because the capabilities speak for themselves.”


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