In the 1966 science fiction classic "Fantastic Voyage," a submarine named Proteus was miniaturized and injected into a person to perform micro-surgery. Nearly 50 years later, shipbuilding giant Huntington Ingalls Industries has its own Proteus submersible. While submarine surgery is still the stuff of futuristic drama, company officials hope the current model represents the next phase of undersea naval operations in the not-too-distant future.
HII put the Proteus on display Monday at the Sea Air Space Exposition at National Harbor, Md., the largest event of its kind in the U.S. For a company that normally impresses crowds by going big — its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall — they did not disappoint for this particular show.
HII trucked in the 8,240-pound fully operational submersible and opened its doors for the crowds to gawk at its inner workings. They can only hope the Navy is just as interested.
Ross Lindman is senior vice president of operations at Undersea Solutions Group. It became part of HII in January. The shipbuilding giant purchased the Engineering Solutions Division of The Columbia Group, based in Panama City Beach, Fla, and renamed it. Lindman was kept busy Monday as crowds flocked one of the larger displays on the convention center floor, which featured more than 200 exhibitors.
The Proteus name is a nod to the Greek sea god who could change shape. For the 2015 version, changing shape means adapting to different missions. "That's the beauty of it," Lindman said. "It is so flexible." Proteus can operate with a crew of six divers or it can be unmanned. It can spy on the enemy, fire weapons, transport gear or patrol a harbor.
The craft represents the work of Lindman's company as well as Ohio-based Battelle and its subsidiary, Bluefin Robotics. As luck would have it, Battelle and Bluefin erected a display on the other side of the exhibit floor, showing off a scaled- down model of Proteus, along with other submersibles. "With this, you can dream up anything," said Robert Geoghegan, manager of submersibles for Battelle. He gave this example of how Proteus could revolutionize undersea warfare:
Let's say the U.S. Navy wants to lay mines in a harbor. Instead of doing it the old way — putting down a bunch of mines and waiting for a ship — Proteus could lay sensors on the sea floor. A sensor would detect a target ship, and Proteus would relay that to a human decision-maker. If prompted, Proteus could lay a small number of mines in a much more targeted area. The advantage: A better chance of hitting the target, and the fewer unexploded mines to clean up after the war is over.
Today, the military makes heavy use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Lindman said unmanned underwater vehicles are following that same path. At first, the military was not thrilled with the idea of unmanned aerial craft, he said. But once decision makers saw the applications, the industry took off.
The key, he said, is convincing the Navy of the craft's flexibility. The sea service is currently looking at unmanned submersibles, as well as manned underwater craft that could carry Navy SEALs. "We've built this vehicle to show you can have one vehicle to fulfill both sets of missions," he said. "They really hadn't considered that from the government side."
The parallels between airborne and undersea vehicles are not perfect. Chris Murphy, a lead scientist with Bluefin Robotics, said undersea vehicles do not have a real-time human pilot, as do UAVs. Communication is delayed because the craft is underwater.
Lindman said his new relationship with Newport News Shipbuilding should pay dividends. Newport News is one of two shipyards that makes nuclear-powered submarines. A submersible like Proteus is often launched and recovered by submarines. It helps to have engineers at both ends of that operation in the same company, he said. "They learn more about how the small guys work," he said. "We learn about how the big guys work. We can give the Navy the whole solution."