In an effort to make unmanned subs more affordable, useful and lethal to operate, the U.S. Navy has awarded Boeing a contract worth $274.4 million. The contract requires Boeing to build up to five Orca extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles (XLUUV). Orca is based on the Echo Voyager test bed, a 15.5-meter long sub that can be deployed to execute counter-mining operations, submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare and strike missions.
The Sea Voyager fits into the current vision of the Navy that demands UUVs be able to operate from a port, loiter in the designated area, set up communications, deploy payloads and navigate back to base.
Current unmanned undersea vehicles require a support vessel, have reduced operational range and can, therefore, be more expensive to run and maintain.
According to Boeing: “That reliance results in significant size restrictions limiting on-board power availability, precluding incorporation of redundancy for long-term operations, and reducing payload capacity. At the same time, new sensor and system payloads are rapidly being introduced that could expand the UUV mission set.”
Boeing and Lockheed Martin were selected in October of 2017 to participate in the development phase for the Navy’s Orca XLUUV. In May of this year, Boeing was selected for a contract modification to deliver five Orca robot subs and support equipment.
U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Alan Baribeau stated: “The Orca XLUUV is a multi-phased accelerated acquisition featuring a full and open competition to industry to design, fabricate, test and deliver systems to the U.S. Navy. The Navy selected the best value of price and technical capabilities.”
The Orca is based on the Echo Voyager prototype that Boeing funded and tested to perform as a multi-role unmanned sub-platform. Test results with the Echo Voyager give Boeing the capability to incorporate lessons learned into the Orca XLUUV.
A Boeing spokesperson stated: “The vehicle has more than 2,500 hours of ocean testing. Echo Voyager completed its first phase of sea testing – or Alpha sea trials – in 2017 when it operated off the coast of southern California for about three months to undergo system evaluations and testing.”
“During that time, the Echo Voyager test team conducted a series of functional tests to verify Echo Voyager’s ability to operate on the surface, just beneath the surface and undersea. Ocean testing tasks included charging the battery, controlling the vehicle in currents and wave action, submerging the vehicle and returning to the surface. Echo Voyager returned to sea in 2018 through early this year for Bravo sea trials, designed to expand the operational envelope from the initial test series.”
According to Boeing, Echo Voyager offers a range of 6,500 nautical miles and months of operation on a single fuel module. The fuel module is composed of a battery and diesel hybrid marine generator combo. Since GPS capability is only usable at the surface, it employs a Kalman filtered inertial navigation unit in conjunction with a set of Doppler velocity logs, and depth sensors to navigate underwater.
The Navy expects its first delivery by the end of the 2020 financial year. After that, the four remaining subs will be delivered, one by one, until December of 2022. The Orca program is revolutionary because it offers a leap in capability for a fraction of the cost of a manned sub and other equivalents. It also aids in the continued dominance of the high seas by the U.S. Navy, which is seeing China creeping up ever so slightly.