Echo Ranger Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle operating off of Catalina Island, Calif.(Boeing) (Bob Ferguson / PHOTOGRAPHER: BOB FERGUSON)
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF. — Unmanned systems are commonplace in the world of aviation. But it wasn’t long ago that they were more of an oddity for world militaries.
That changed when technological developments finally let systems operate for long stretches of time, giving operators a near-permanent eye in the sky. Once that barrier was breached, UAVs could be used for all kinds of applications.
Is a similar breakthrough coming for unmanned systems that operate underwater? Boeing believes so — and that it will happen within the next two years.
“I think we’re on the edge,” Mark Kosko, Boeing’s program manager for unmanned undersea systems, told a group of reporters Aug. 19 during a Boeing-funded media tour of the company’s Los Angeles-area facilities. The company has a background in unmanned submersibles. Its 18.5-foot-long Echo Ranger premiered in 2001. But it has a limited range. Kosko is confident his team is close to being able to change that. “Within two years,” he said when asked for a timetable. “There’s going to be game-changing stuff. Those game-changers include the ability to have long, persistent trips for autonomous systems, potentially with multiple payloads.
“Right now a 10, 20, 30, 40-hour vehicle is more of a toy. It definitely does something productive, but if you have to have a man in the loop, you might as well have done it off of a boat,” he added. “I think the game changer is what we’re interested in and what we assume will be persistent systems, bigger vehicles with a lot of payload capability and a vehicle that always comes back home.”
Kosko tacitly acknowledged that the company is working on some form of prototype while developing this system, and also noted that developing that future unmanned underwater system is not without risk for Boeing. While Kosko said US Navy officials have expressed interest, budget realities could very easily interfere.
He proposes a potential solution that again draws on Boeing’s experience. Rather than sell a new system to the Pentagon, Boeing could work out a contracting situation in which the Pentagon asks Boeing to run specific operations with its device. It’s a system that has worked for the company in the past, including with its Echo Ranger in the Gulf of Mexico.