Image Credit: Boeing

Back in 2017 we reported on the Boeing Echo Voyager autonomous unmanned submarines and now, big brother is here. It comes in the form of the Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) built for a host of applications.

The US Navy awarded Boeing with a US$43 million contract to build four Orca’s and the support gear. Boeing partnered with Huntington Ingalls Industries to develop the 51-ft (15.5 m) long unmanned undersea vehicles which will operate in the open ocean. This is largely thanks to next-level autonomous navigation systems and a fuel module that gives the Orca an incredible range of 6,500 nm (7,480 mi / 12,038 km).

But to get a real idea of the engineering ingenuity of the Orca, let’s recap on the Boeing Echo Voyager.

Design Inspiration: Boeing Echo Voyager Unmanned Undersea Vehicles

According to Boeing, the Echo Voyager is multi-purposed with the core idea being ocean exploration. It can take water samples and scan the ocean floor to map out previously inaccessible waters. In addition, other applications include oil and gas exploration, inspect a ship or submarine’s hull integrity and check the underwater infrastructure of oil rigs. The Echo Voyager can even link up with satellites to transfer valuable data to its masters on land.

The Voyager runs on Lithium-ion (silver zinc) batteries that can power the craft for a few days at a time. An added benefit is that it doesn’t rely on a mother vessel to refuel which only adds to its superiority. The only time it has to surface is to recharge the batteries. Here are some of the specifications:

  • Weight: 50 tons
  • Length: 51 feet (15.5 meters)
  • Dive depth: 11 000 ft (3 352 meters or 3.3 km)
  • Maximum speed: 8 knots (14 km/h / 9.2 mph)
  • Maximum range: 6 500 nautical miles (12 000 m)

Related article: ‘Boeing Echo Voyager Takes The Plunge

Orca Unmanned Undersea Vehicles

If you don’t know already, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are not a new concept. In fact, they have been around for some time but designs and technological advances mean they are getting bigger and better.

Boeing has been in the businesses of designing and operating manned and unmanned deep sea systems since the 1960s. This includes the Rockwell International legacy systems and US Navy support programmes. Before the Echo Voyager took shape, Boeing also developed the Echo Seeker and Echo Ranger. Both were autonomous and large undersea vehicles (UUVs) and used as test cases for its current brainchild, the Orca XLUUV.

Orca XLUUV Specifications

The Orca design allows it to be deployed from a shore base or a host ship platform. It has an open architecture, modular construction that includes a payload bay 34 ft (10.4 m) long and a volume of 2,000 cubic ft (56.6 cubic m). The Orca unmanned undersea vehicles don’t need a ship to launch, recover, or support its efforts. This is primarily as a result of the advanced autonomous guidance and control, navigation, situational awareness, core communications, power distribution, propulsion, manoeuvring, and mission sensor systems.

Some increasingly common applications are mainly for naval and civilian marine operations but up until now, the undersea vehicles have been small, short ranged and too reliant on their host vessels. Manned submarines have long been used for blue water underwater operations but with a machine like this, things are changing. The fact that the US Navy wants to purchase the Orca shows their recognition of the growing importance in adding robotic submarines to their already impressive fleet.

Orca XLUUV Applications

As mentioned earlier, the Orca is derived from the Boeing Echo Voyager with similar technologies and capabilities. It is diesel-electric powered and can be used for a wide variety of applications. Some of these include mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and strike missions among others.

The fact that it’s an unmanned craft means it also doesn’t require any life support systems. Not only does this leave space for additional payload or mission-critical systems but it also means the Orca can remain submerged for long periods of time.

The Future Of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles

Orca XLUUVs may one day be able to launch strikes against targets on and offshore using stand-off cruise missiles. The US Navy believes that this potential ability means that undersea unmanned vehicles could rapidly and discreetly position themselves in closer proximity to a crisis area. They could become invaluable for time-sensitive strikes.

The Orcas are essentially the stepping stone for the US Navy as they plan for ‘Large Diameter Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (LDUUV)’. This refers to the launching and recovery of submarines like the Virginia-class closer to the actual target area. The concept aims at creating for a more robust submarine motherships as part of its ‘Large Payload Submarine program’.

The Pentagon announced that Boeing and its partners should all four Orcas ready by 2022. And if they remain on track, the next couple of years will be exciting for the US Navy and in developing new unmanned undersea capabilities.

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