A retooled robot submarine that can map the depths for oil drilling, scan for radiation or even track whales and other sea life is being tested this week off Santa Catalina Island. Boeing hopes its “Echo Ranger,” first built in 2001 for the oil and gas industry but now equipped with an acoustic sensor and a radiation monitor, will find new uses in private industry. Military uses are possible as well, officials from Boeing in Anaheim said, including patrolling waterways for Homeland Security.
Around the world, “the proliferation of submarines is getting alarming,” said Jameson Garrett, program development manager at Boeing. “They’re going to outnumber us five to one, 10 to one within the next few generations.”
The 18.5-foot-long sub, weighing more than five tons, is being lowered into the water off Catalina all week to test an acoustic monitor that can record the sound of ships moving along the surface, or the ambient sounds of sea life — including the calls of whales.
Boeing is also testing a radiation detector, built by Princeton Gamma-Tech Instruments, by checking for naturally occurring radiation in sea water. The island’s Wrigley Institute is being used as the submarine’s base during testing. But it might one day be used to assess potentially harmful effects of illegal dumping of nuclear material, or nuclear accidents. “Fukushima comes to mind,” Garrett said. “It’s given us the ability to have a bloodhound in the water.”
The sub’s initial development was a victim of poor timing, said Mark Kosko, a Boeing manager of advanced technology programs. It was made in part for sonar mapping in the Gulf of Mexico, but business slumped after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Costs associated with deploying the sub also were a factor, Garrett said, along with delays in Department of Defense movement toward the technology. Now it is equipped to handle a variety of tasks. Claw-like “manipulators” could even be attached to the sub, allowing it to perform delicate underwater repairs and other operations.
The vehicle can dive to 10,000 feet, and should be able to stay submerged up to 45 hours using rechargable lithium batteries as a power source.
And it’s a true robot, not simply a remotely operated vehicle. Once programmed, say, for a sonar mapping task, it could perform the job by itself over hours or days, with only occasional check-ins by operators. “If it is out doing its thing, we may query it acoustically,” Garrett said. “‘Now you’re doing what step of the plan, or pattern?’”
Environmental monitoring is also possible, whether it is taking samples of seawater for pollution content, measuring changing dynamics for sea life, or surveying the depths for exotic lifeforms.
It could even make a new splash in the oil and gas industry. Garrett said many oil exploration companies are moving infrastructure from the surface to the sea floor, high-pressure environments where a robot sub could come in handy. “It’s going to be a very exciting couple of years,” he said. “Our goal is to ride the curve of that new paradigm of offshore energy drilling, and offshore security.”