Boeing has joined forces with Huntington Ingalls to develop its "Echo Voyager" prototype autonomous submarine for the U.S. Navy. Boeing is best known as an aerospace giant, but it also has decades of experience in building unmanned underwater vehicles for the military. But the Voyager takes the concept to an entirely new level, Boeing says: it is capable of operating on its own for months at a time, and it has a large payload bay that can be used for weapons systems or instrumentation.
Huntington Ingalls is one of two builders of the Navy’s manned submarines, and it regularly delivers new Virginia-class attack subs every year. It is also the builder of the new, sophisticated Ford-class aircraft carriers, the costliest warships ever built. “We are combining Boeing’s preeminent UUV maritime engineering team with our nation’s leading shipbuilder and Navy technical services company to get operational vehicles to the Navy years ahead of the standard acquisition process,” said Boeing Phantom Works president Darryl Davis, speaking to Navy Times.
The Voyager is the third generation of a Boeing prototype program, and at 51 feet in length it is nearly twice the size of its predecessors. It will compete in the Navy's Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV) RFP, which calls for an "open architecture" submarine system that can be reconfigured depending upon the mission. The RFP specifies a range of 2,000 nm and a payload bay with a capacity of at least 325 cubic feet; Navy spokesman Capt. Jon Rucker recently told DefenseNews that the program will be fast-tracked to fill an “urgent operational need” for five units. Potential tasks include anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, special warfare support, covert installation of undersea sensors, signals intelligence/jamming, and an “offensive capability” that includes the deployment of missiles or “explosive payloads” – all autonomously, without constant human oversight. Open ocean testing on Voyager began earlier this year off the coast of California.
Lance Towers, the director of land and sea for Phantom Works, says that Boeing also envisions the Voyager as a cost-effective platform for academic and commercial users. “It was not designed with one customer in mind . . . it has the ability to carry a wide variety of payloads for multiple customers,” Towers says. “It can go out to sea and provide ocean data to its users in an almost-real time environment – versus today, you go out there with a surface ship, you lower a probe with which you collect information . . . you have that large time constant between going out there and when you get the data.”