Boeing’s line of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can operate autonomously for months at a time on a plug-in hybrid propulsion system. Pictured above is the 18ft Echo Ranger. The aerospace and defense contractor also manufactures the 32-foot Echo Seeker, and its latest innovation, and largest autonomous submarine, is the 51-foot Voyager.
More than 80% of the ocean remains unexplored by humans but could soon be mapped by autonomous underwater robots. But will all unmanned submarines be used for this?
Autonomous robot submarines – also known as Autonomous Underwater Vehicles or AUVs – are able to explore high-pressure areas of the ocean floor inaccessible to humans through pre-programmed missions, allowing them to operate without humans on board or control them. They are often used by scientists for underwater research as well as oil and gas companies for deep-sea studies, but as defensive security threats continue to grow, the largest sector of the AUV market has become the army.
AUVs can be useful tools in military ocean exploration, obtaining critical information such as seafloor mapping, searching for mines – a current use case in the Russian-Ukrainian war – and underwater surveillance. Marine. Navies around the world are investing in unmanned underwater vehicles to elevate their fleet of underwater defense tools.
Defense company Anduril Industries launched its expansion from land to sea when it acquired AUV maker Dive Technologies in February. The acquisition gave them their own customizable AUV called the Dive-LD.
“There are more and more threats that are above water and under water that can only really be dealt with by robotic systems that can hide from enemy surveillance, that can hide from this that you can see in the air and can do things that are only possible underwater,” Palmer Luckey, co-founder of Anduril Industries, told CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” at the time of the news. acquisition.
In addition to acquiring Dive Technologies, Anduril Industries expanded into Australia in March, then in May partnered with the Australian Defense Force to work on a $100 million project to design and create three extra large AUVs for the Royal Australian Navy.
In the UK, the Royal Navy recently ordered its first AUV named Cetus XLUUV from MSubs, which is expected to be completed in about two years. The British Ministry of Defense also announced in August the donation of six autonomous underwater drones to Ukraine to help it in its fight against Russia by locating and identifying Russian mines.
China recently completed construction of the Zhu Hai Yun, an unmanned vessel designed to launch drones and which uses artificial intelligence to navigate the seas with no crew required. The ship is described by Beijing officials as a research toolbut many experts expect it to be used for military purposes as well.
Boeing has been working on AUVs since the 1970s and has worked with the US Navy and DARPA on a number of underwater vehicle projects in recent years. The Echo Voyager, Boeing’s first extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle, began operating in 2017 after about five years of design and development. It’s 51 feet long with a 34-foot payload that’s roughly the size of a school bus and can be used for oil and gas exploration, long-duration surveying, and infrastructure analysis for oil and gas companies.
Boeing’s latest unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), the 51-foot Echo Voyager.
The AUV has spent nearly 10,000 hours of operation at sea and has traveled hundreds of nautical miles autonomously. It’s versatile and modular, Ann Stevens, senior director of Maritime Undersea at Boeing, said in an interview.
“There is no other vehicle of this size and capability in the world, Echo Voyager is the only one,” Stevens said.
Boeing is developing the Orca XLUUV with funding from the US Navy. The company won a $43 million contract to build four of the AUVs, based on Boeing’s Echo Voyager design, in February 2019. The project has experienced production delays – the Orca XLUUVs which were originally due be delivered in December. 2020 is now expected to end in 2024. The company cited cost issues as well as supply chain issues due to the pandemic as reasons for the change.
“It’s a development program, and we’re developing breakthrough technology that’s never been built before,” Stevens said. “We’ve been in tune with the Navy all the way. We’re going to have a great vehicle coming out the other side.”
Robotics and automation in general is a young field, according to Maani Ghaffari, assistant professor in the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan. Researchers began developing AUVs around 50 to 60 years ago, although the quality and variety of sensors needed to build the systems are limited. Today’s sensors are smaller, cheaper and of higher quality.
“We are at the stage where we can build much better and more efficient hardware and sensors for robots as we hope to deploy some of them in daily life at some point,” Ghaffari said.
AUVs still have some challenges to overcome before becoming a feasible mechanism for daily use, on the one hand the robots have to operate in an arguably harder-than-air environment where the higher density of water creates a hydraulic drag that slows the robot down and drains its battery faster.
However, some AUVs in development have impressive speeds and endurance. When complete, Boeing said it expects the Orca XLUUV to travel 6,500 nautical miles without being connected to another vessel. Anduril reports that the Dive-LD can be sent on missions autonomously for up to 10 days and is designed to last week-long missions.
Environmental challenges are the main pain points for AUVs. Underwater communication from unmanned submarines is limited because the signals used to transfer messages through the air are quickly absorbed in water, and vehicle cameras are not as clear underwater.
Whether AUVs will eventually be used as more than a surveillance tool and engage in underwater warfare is more of an ethical issue within artificial intelligence and robotics, Ghaffari said. . Although vehicles can be sophisticated enough to make autonomous decisions, concerns arise when decisions can impact human lives.
“The only idea is that you basically give the battle to these robots instead of soldiers – fewer people could die, but on the other hand, when artificial intelligence can make decisions faster than humans and act faster than humans, it could increase the amount of damage they can do,” Ghaffari said. the future.”