By Sandra Irwin

One of the defense industry’s most secretive technology developers — Boeing’s Phantom Works — is making a big bet on commercial robots it believes are better suited to military needs and cheaper than anything the Pentagon could ever invent.

Seeing an obvious need in the U.S. Navy and motivated by the Pentagon’s rhetoric that it intends to buy innovative products from the commercial industry, Boeing executives decided to depart from the traditional defense business model and spend company funds to develop a family of autonomous mini-submarines.

Boeing has worked on maritime robots for decades but in recent years, Phantom Works — known for designing stealth fighters and high-concept vehicles — has “really stepped up its investment in autonomous underwater vehicles,” said Lance Towers, director of advanced technology programs at Boeing’s Electronic & Information Solutions division.

The market for robots has been booming in the defense sector since the military began to use unmanned systems for missions viewed as too dangerous for human operators. Boeing’s autonomous underwater vehicles would be poised to patrol waters in areas where the Navy might not want to risk sending manned submarines.

But the company is not just offering this system on that basis alone. Another big selling point: These robots would be real money savers — unlike other unmanned systems used by the military that require massive crews and support infrastructure to operate.

“We were interested in trying to help our customers to break the cost curve,” Towers said during a presentation at Boeing’s corporate office in Arlington, Virginia.

Boeing analysts crunched the numbers. For the Navy, the only way to save real money in ocean surveillance is by deploying autonomous vehicles that don’t require labor-intensive surface ships or submarines for launch and recovery. “You needed something that could be launched from port, operate for a long time without humans needed to maintain or recharge,” Towers said.

The company in March unveiled a 51-foot hybrid diesel Echo Voyager submarine that is completely autonomous. On the surface of the water, it raises a mast, turns on the diesel generator, recharges the batteries, lowers the mast and submerges to 11,000 feet.

The vehicle can be launched and recovered from any commercial port in the United States, he said. As far as electronics add-ons, it’s up to each customer, Towers said. It’s the same approach that Boeing has pursued in the defense aviation market with military derivatives of its 737 commercial airframe. “The vehicle was designed for multiple customers so they all share the infrastructure costs.”

The Echo Voyager will be tested at sea in Southern California this summer. Four buyers already have signed up, but Towers would not disclose their identities.

The biggest prize would be a Navy contract. Boeing doesn’t expect that to happen immediately but is confident the Navy will look at the numbers and realize that conventional maritime surveillance is financially unsustainable. There are simply not enough people, surface ships or submarines to keep up with the demands.

“We looked at the trends,” said Towers. “We noticed that average days at sea are dropping every year. Budgets are flat. Personnel costs are going up,” he said. “They can either get to the point where you’re doing one or two days at sea with the current, very expensive assets or do some of the dull and dirty work with other assets that are much cheaper.”

Even if the Navy paid tens of millions of dollars for an autonomous submarine, the long-term savings from support costs and crews add up to billions, Boeing calculated. The vehicle leaves from the pier so there is no support staff. One person can manage 20 vehicles at sea.

Another piece of Boeing’s grand plan to bring commercial technology to the Navy is a partnership with a Silicon Valley-based maker of autonomous vehicles, Liquid Robotics. Its renewable energy powered wave glider grabbed Boeing’s attention in 2012. “When we first found Liquid Robotics they were doing one of these X-prize challenges to cross the Pacific. We read about it, I think, in Popular Science,” said Egan Greenstein, senior director of autonomous maritime systems at Boeing Military Aircraft. “We said, ‘We have to get to know these guys.’”

Boeing helped Liquid Robotics perfect the SHARC (sensor hosting autonomous remote craft) for use as a collector of real-time maritime data. The SHARC is propelled by energy generated by ocean waves, and its electronics are solar powered, so it needs no fuel. It has been sold to oil and gas companies and other civilian industries for ocean exploration.

“When you put it at sea, it’s good for six months without a human touching it,” Greenstein said in an interview. “We thought it had promise to solve hard Navy problems.” Its close-to-the-surface low signature makes it “very hard to locate unless you know where to look.”

Liquid Robotics has built about 350 gliders that have traveled more than a million nautical miles and penetrated 17 tropical storms. “This is a solution that Boeing didn’t have to come in and engineer,” he said. “It is literally a platform on which we’re attaching things.”

Boeing got the Navy to test the SHARC in a tactical exercise last year. “We proved we could detect speed boats and slow boats,” Greenstein said. “We used a hydrophone to detect the sound of approaching ships. If it detected a threat it would call home over satellite communications to tell decision-makers something is going on.”

During a U.S.-Australia joint exercise last summer, the SHARC served as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance node in the ocean. Based on that performance, Boeing saw promise for more complex missions. “We stepped up to antisubmarine warfare which is a very large problem,” he said. The Navy wants freedom of navigation in the Pacific, the South China Sea, big areas where targets are quieter. The SHARC can deploy an acoustic towed array, wait until it hears the signature of a submarine, and call home.

With devices in the water to provide early warnings, the Navy would not have to keep P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft continuously patrolling in case something happens. A cluster of SHARCs, for instance, could be forward deployed, close to the threat. P-8s would be spared from 24/7 duty and would only respond when there’s real danger. The vehicles in the water, further, would be able to talk to unmanned aircraft overhead, said Greenstein.

The underwater vehicle Echo Voyager and the SHARC, he said, “were pursued with an understanding that creating a manned and unmanned seafloor-to-space network is a vital part of the future of maritime surveillance.” SHARC is the communications gateway that enables that network, he explained. “It can ‘talk’ not only with manned and unmanned assets in the air, but also with manned and unmanned subsea and seafloor assets like submarines and UUVs.” SHARC is interoperable with the Echo Ranger, he said, and connecting it with larger platforms like Echo Voyager is the next step.”

This “machine-to-machine collaboration” has become a holy grail in the Defense Department. “We have tried to figure out how we get platforms to cross-cue each other,” he said. “If a SHARC detects an event, it can task a ScanEagle autonomously, without a human in the loop.” The next step is to teach ScanEagle to recognize ships at sea and identify them as friendly or hostile. “I can send unmanned platforms into an area and let them drive around and find everything without bothering human decisions-makers.”

Advanced target identification technology is widely available, said Greenstein. “We all walk around with image recognition technology in our phones. The trick is getting it into unmanned aircraft. That’s just months away.”

At the recent Navy League technology exposition in Washington, D.C., Boeing streamed live data from SHARCs off the coast of Hawaii. The idea is to give Navy leaders a taste of what is possible, he said. “What does it mean to have awareness of every airplane that is flying? And how would you use that information?” Four SHARCs now swimming near Hawaii are tracking every aircraft and ship coming out of Honolulu.

Crewless ocean vehicles such as Echo Voyager and SHARC are so new that governments have yet to write rules for how they should be handled. Collision regulations haven’t been defined yet to address autonomous underwater or surface vehicles, so they are currently categorized as debris.

Boeing is pitching these commercial systems to military leaders even as the Navy continues to pursue its own in-house development of a “large displacement” unmanned underwater vehicle, or LDUUV. Boeing built a similar 18-foot Echo Ranger autonomous vehicle that operates on batteries for two to three days at 10,000 feet below the surface, said Towers. “You program it, you release it and once it goes submerged, you’re no longer talking to it.”

The first vehicle in the Echo family was the Ranger, which was built in the early 2000s for the oil industry. There were hiccups. Engineers found that, from a cost perspective, if the weather is great, using an autonomous vehicle was extremely cost effective, said Towers.

“However when the weather was bad, a surface ship would have to send an acoustic command to Echo Ranger telling it to surface, the crew would have to recover the vehicle, put it on the deck of the ship, go into port and ride out the storm.” The lesson was that the technology required further development for vehicles to operate independently under any conditions.

Many of the features added to the gliders and submarines were in response to what executives heard in meetings with Pentagon officials, said Greenstein. “As far back as three years ago, if you weren’t a ‘program of record’ the reaction would be, ‘What are you doing here talking at the Navy League?’” he said. “Now everybody wants innovation. They have funds for experimentation in the budget. I see the Navy and the Defense Department making that adjustment. There’s more opportunity to do experimentation, so we see a different environment for this kind of thing.” The Navy did sign a cooperative research agreement with Boeing to share some of the cost of the robots’ sensor packages.

The focus now is on “reuse of commercial technology,” he said. “DoD is realizing they’re being left behind.”

Even if the LDUUV is the program of record, Boeing believes the Navy wants to see a “different and cheaper way to solve the problem.” After the company started showing the commercial vehicles to Navy officials, “We very quickly attracted the right attention so now we’re having detailed conversations.”

There is a similar culture shift going on among traditional defense contractors that for decades thrived on developing proprietary platforms with closely held designs and interfaces. “Everybody is open architecture now,” said Towers. “Before, the attitude was that nobody could put stuff on ‘my platform,’” he said. “That cripples our customers, though. That’s not the world anymore. It isn’t the best thing to hold the keys to everything. Open it up, let everyone use it. You may not get everything you want out of it. But it has a better chance of going forward.”
Greenstein said he and other Phantom Works executives had to persuade the company’s top leadership that this project was worth investing in. It’s a risk, he said, but “we believe industry will be rewarded for taking those steps.”

Boeing sees the partnership with Liquid Robotics as a preview of how defense business is going to be done in the future. “We understand the cycle of defense. It’s a bigger challenge for a startup. They don’t have the base that we do. That’s where we can help bridge the two worlds,” he said. “Boeing and other primes can do this, be a mentor. I love working with those companies. But the defense primes do have their own portion of innovation that is required for military systems. There’s a certain rigor that has to go into a defense product.”

The next step for Boeing is to prove that the “big data” approach to maritime surveillance can work in a complex naval scenario. Sensors are cheap and when they are connected, the effects are powerful, said Greenstein.

“If I can put 50 SHARCs out there near where the enemy is, with zero fuel and zero operator dollars for six months at a time, I can enable a different form of information. It’s a different way of thinking,” he said. “We feel we have to go do it to prove it.”

How many vehicles would the Navy need to patrol the oceans? It varies. Some sensors can see 10 miles away, he said, “so you can space them very far apart. It depends on the mission and the area.”

The Navy wants global reach, Greenstein noted. “They need to clear areas that are very large where they can be safe. That’s a hard problem.” Today, Navy crews drop sonobuoys in the water to look for submarines. These are expendable sensors that only last about eight hours.

“They drop 50 to 60 at a time,” he said. “I can see a similar application with SHARCs covering the same area, but you don’t have to replace them every eight hours. They hold for six months. That kind of scale would be a huge cost savings for the Navy. Buoys have to be replaced and you also need airplanes or ships to drop them in the ocean. It’s a very expensive way to get sensors in the water. Wouldn’t it be great if they just swim themselves?”