When you read in the news that China stole an American unmanned drone submarine from us right out of the water, it sounds pretty alarming. What is the drone sub they stole? Are they going to find out all kinds of state secrets? Will they reverse-engineer the robo-sub and turn it against us? While nobody likes to have their stuff stolen, in this case what we lost really isn’t a big deal, national security-wise.

I’m not trying to downplay the actual act of theft – that’s absolutely a big deal, and we’ll likely see ramifications from it – but, based on information we received from a Naval Oceanographic Office oceanography tech, it seems that the drone China now has is nothing remotely sensitive or even all that expensive.

Based on our source’s information, the drone is known as a SLOCUM Ocean Glider, and they’re built entirely from unclassified, off-the-shelf components. Our source described the glider as

“basically an underwater, reusable ‘weather balloon’ that helps us better model the ocean... The Chinese basically got nothing out of this, other than a 6-figure thermometer/salinity sensor.”

They’re capable of long-range and long-duration missions, and can operate for weeks at a time, only surfacing to transmit their data and to download new instructions. They’re pretty cool!

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The drone was in use as part of an unclassified program involved in collecting oceanographic data, including ocean temperatures, water salinity and clarity, and other data. The data can have use for both scientific and military uses, especially in the field of sonar effectiveness, which would be of interest to the Navy.

These drones go for about $150,000, so it’s expensive for most of us looking for a consumer-grade, thermometer/salinity sensor, sure, but for the Navy, this isn’t some incredibly sensitive, super-secret underwater drone.

The glider is very likely one like these

We still want it back, though, in case anyone from the Chinese navy is reading this. In case the Chinese ditch it in the ocean, here’s some video of what one looks like in the water, in case you spot it:

Of course, we don’t have the glider in our hands, and it’s possible it is something more exotic – but that doesn’t seem likely. If that does turn out to be the case, we’ll absolutely update accordingly.