In the early 18th century, on June 18, 1708, the San Jose, one of the largest treasure ships in the Spanish fleet, sunk to the bottom of the ocean as a result of the battles of the War of Spanish Succession. The San Jose housed treasure valued at around $17 billion in today’s dollars. Since its demise, this ship wreck has been one of the most sought after treasures. After years of looking for this valuable wreck, an autonomous underwater vehicle (or an underwater drone) was finally the one who discovered it.

While this wreck was actually discovered over two years ago, it was only just reported that it was Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s REMUS 6000, an underwater research drone, that actually made the discovery. This torpedo-shaped AUV is capable of operating at depths of 3.73 miles and weighs about 1,900 pounds. REMUS 6000 uses accelerometers and gyros to measure movement in three directions and pulses of sound, as well as separate sonar pulses, while operators above the ocean’s surface communicate mission commands and get updates on the AUV’s course via short pulses of sound (think of it like a data-driven Morse code).

REMUS 6000 discovered the wreck through a meticulous grid search of a large area where the ship had supposedly sunk. It was the AUV’s side-sonar that picked up the ship. Specifically, the AUV had been programmed to locate the ship’s distinctive cannons, which is the piece of data that was pinged back up to the operators above.

This mission is a prime example of one of the ways in which AUVs and drones are changing the way many industries do business. From land to air to sea, AUVs and drones can extend beyond the capabilities of humans and increase efficiency and successes –like this discovery of treasure.

For now, the precise coordinates of the treasure remain a closely guarded secret.