An 18-foot, bright-yellow submarine drone is being tested off the coast of Santa Catalina Island for possible use by the U.S. military to stalk enemy waters, patrol local harbors for national security threats and scour ocean floors to detect environmental hazards.
Although robotic aircraft already play a critical role in modern warfare, taking out insurgents with missile strikes in the skies above Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the same robotic revolution hasn't taken place in the world's oceans.
Submarine drones have had limited use in ocean exploration, but Boeing Co. hopes to forge a much more sweeping role in national defense and environmental protection, said Mark Kosko, program director for the company's Unmanned Underwater Systems division.
"We're at the point that we can take this show on the road," he said. "This is a technology that can now move beyond the test role into a more meaningful role."
The mini-sub was made at Boeing's defense systems facility in Anaheim.
The unmanned sub can withstand the crushing pressures of the deep ocean, diving to depths of 10,000 feet to glide above the seabed, dodging craggy mountains on its own. Engineers can envision a day when the vehicle is equipped with long-range torpedoes and sent on covert missions that last for months.
Boeing built the robotic submarine, dubbed Echo Ranger, in 2001 to capture high-resolution sonar images of underwater sea beds for the oil and gas industry. But now the company believes it has evolved the sub's onboard computers into a sophisticated system that will usher in a new era of unmanned submersibles.
The Echo Ranger program is not funded by the Navy, rather the endeavor is funded entirely by Boeing itself. The company would not disclose how much it has poured into research and design of the submarine.
Kosko did say the program benefited heavily from lessons learned during a five-year, $100-million contract in which Boeing developed a clandestine mine reconnaissance system for the Navy.
"It has been a long road," Kosko said. "But this is the future."
Boeing first tested the sub in its 1-million-gallon test pool at its Anaheim facility that was the birthplace of the guidance systems for the world's first nuclear submarine and developed components for the manned space program.
Boeing is moving from the facility, which boasted 36,000 workers at its Cold War peak, to its growing complex in Huntington Beach.
The Echo Ranger ran some missions capturing high-resolution sonar images of sea beds for oil and gas companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. It is now running tests off Catalina Island at USC's Wrigley Marine Science Center.
Kosko hopes that it won't be long before its running missions for the Navy.
"It's ready to be sent in harm's way," he said.
The Navy has a number of aerial drone programs in the works, including its carrier-launched, bat-winged X-47B drone and MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, both made by Northrop Grumman Corp. They also have used robotic mine sweepers, such as Boeing's mine reconnaissance system.
But the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, said in a speech on Friday that submarine drones will be vital to future battles and reconnaissance missions.
"Unmanned systems will play an even larger, more critical, and more crucial role in the years ahead, particularly in contested environments," he said. "Few times in history have we been presented with a technological opportunity in the way we are today."
He characterized unmanned systems as a "game-changer," technology that is cheaper and safer for sailors than current technology.
"We in the Navy have reimagined our future," Roughead said.
Technology, however, is still catching up to that vision.
Unlike aerial drones, which rely on GPS data for guidance and location, submarines plummeting the depths of the ocean cannot receive satellite signals. For this reason, a robotic submarine needs to have complete autonomy and "smarts" to know where it is and where it is going.
The autonomy issue is of particular concern if the robots are to be armed one day. Roughead recently ordered Navy lawyers to examine the legal and ethical issues of unmanned systems in warfare.
Along with the technological and ethical hurdles, robotic submarines also face bureaucratic head winds among some Navy brass, said defense expert Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare.
"It takes a lot to change the mind set of military officials," he said. "With aerial drones, it was a little easier to convince the brass because troops were losing their lives in roadside bomb attacks. They realized there was an immediate need for the technology.
"We're not engaging in undersea combat," he said. "That need isn't as clear."
Current concerns about the size of the federal deficit may increase interest in the cheaper submarine drones, he said. Today's class of nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarines cost $2.8 billion a piece, according to the latest Government Accountability Office report. Drone subs will cost a fraction of that, Singer said.
"The same benefits apply to underwater drones as they do to aerial drones: It saves lives and money," he said. "Just like what happened in the air, it's bound to happen beneath the sea."
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