Boeing’s ‘game-changing’ robot submarine ready for deeper-water testing

July 14, 2017

By Sandy Mazza, Daily Breeze

Posted: 07/01/17, 4:13 PM PDT | Updated: 1 week, 5 days ago

Boeing’s newest, largest unmanned undersea vehicle, Echo Voyager, is preparing for its second phase of testing in deep waters off Catalina Island, located 26 miles off the southern California coast.

If all goes well, it could soon be an answer to the U.S. Navy’s request for an “extra large” robotic submarine capable of communicating with other machines to coordinate large-scale movements.

The 51-foot-long Voyager’s first real-world trials in the San Pedro Bay and off the Palos Verdes Peninsula finished recently. Now stationed at Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, Calif., the submarine will begin longer-range tests in deeper waters after some engineering tweaks are made.

Early tests were performed in a large pool at Boeing’s Phantom Works defense-prototyping facility in Huntington Beach. It was conceived and built there, in partnership with veteran ship-maker Huntington Ingalls Industries.

“It is a complete, game-changing approach to how autonomous underwater systems will be used in the future,” said Lance Towers, a senior director at Boeing.

The defense industry hopes to use Voyager for deep-diving, months-long autonomous war-fighting excursions. Primarily a surveillance ship, it’s fitted with technology that will allow it to coordinate with other robotic subs, as well as drones, to perform coordinated operations. But the Voyager will be made available commercially for scientific use as well.

Built for endurance

Voyager is designed to carry larger military payloads than its predecessors, Seeker and Ranger. It’s also built to travel deeper and farther, though its not clear how deep it will be able to travel yet. But it’s made to go to sea on its own for three months or more, while completing complex tasks.

For its first real-world excursion, a team of Boeing engineers trailed the Voyager in a ship for two months off the coasts of Los Angeles and Long Beach, from April through June. The engineers observed the yellow-roofed submarine, with a gray body, as it performed daily exercises.

“The first time it went underwater, I think my blood pressure raised 20 points,” said Voyager Test Director Derek Ahern. “This is just the initial sea trial. Ultimately, the vehicle is going to run by itself for multiple months at a time. This is the first of many at-sea testing [trips].”

Deep-water tests will commence later this year, said Brittney Carolina, a Boeing spokeswoman. In the meantime, the sub will be tweaked and improved in Long Beach and Huntington Beach.

“The ocean testing is critical to Echo Voyager’s success because underwater autonomy has a higher level of difficulty,” Caroline said. “Once Echo Voyager submerges for a long-distance swim, it is completely on its own.”

‘A force multiplier’

Among the many thorny challenges involved with developing autonomous robotic submarines is maintaining strong communication with the underwater world, said David Flowers, a Boeing program manager.

“Unlike an aerial vehicle, or a satellite where you can communicate with it when it’s in trouble, with subsea vehicles you can’t do that because of the communication,” Flowers said. “The vehicle has got to understand what to do if it gets in trouble, make rule-based decisions and act in a way that allows it to stay safe and complete its mission.”

Autonomous-underwater vehicles have been actively produced by the defense industry and its suppliers since the 1990s. But recent technology advances have quickly boosted their capabilities.

Last year, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency issued a call for an extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle as part of its plans for stronger networks of air and ground-based drones with UUVs that can carry larger loads and communicate flawlessly.

“U.S. Navy assets must cover vast regions of interest around the globe even as force reductions and fiscal constraints continue to shrink fleet sizes,” according to a DARPA statement about its Hydra system of unmanned war-fighting machines.

“Hydra aims to develop a distributed undersea network of unmanned payloads and platforms to complement manned vessels. Hydra would serve as a force multiplier, enabling faster, scalable and more cost-effective deployment of assets wherever needed.”

The Voyager’s military missions ultimately could include gathering intelligence, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance, and blocking naval mines. But Boeing officials also plan to make the machine available to the commercial market for science use.