U.S. Navy awards Boeing a contract for giant drone submarines called Orcas

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Boeing’s drone submarines called Orca. PHOTO/BOEING

By TECH CORRESPONDENT

The U.S. Navy has awarded a contract to Boeing for four Extra-Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (XLUUVs). In other words: giant drone subs.

The unmanned submarines, called Orcas, will be able to undertake missions from scouting to sinking ships at very long ranges. Drone ships like the Orca will revolutionize war at sea, providing inexpensive, semi-disposable weapon systems that can fill the gaps in the front line—or simply go where it’s too dangerous for manned ships to go.

The contract, announced today, stipulates Boeing will get $43 million for “fabrication, test, and delivery of four Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) and associated support elements.” That’s just over ten million bucks per boat

The Orca unmanned autonomous submersible will be capable of crossing entire oceans and fulfilling a variety of missions, from hunting mines to sinking submarines.

The Orca is based on the Echo Voyager technology demonstration sub. That boat is an unmanned diesel electric submarine launched and recovered from a pier. It has a range of 6,500 nautical miles and can run completely alone for months at a time. It measures 51 by 8.5 by 8.5 feet and has a weight “in the air” of 50 tons.

The sub features an inertial navigation system, depth sensors, and can surface to get a fix on its position via GPS. It uses satellite communications to “phone home” and report information or receive new orders. Echo Voyager can dive to a maximum depth of 11,000 feet and has a top speed of eight knots.

One crucial piece of Echo Voyager is the modular payload system that allows it to take on different payloads to support different missions. The unmanned sub has an internal cargo volume of 2,000 cubic feet with a maximum length of 34 feet and a capacity of eight tons. It can also support external payloads hanging off the hull.

Orca could even pack a Mk. 46 lightweight torpedo to take a shot at an enemy sub itself. It could also carry heavier Mk. 48 heavyweight torpedoes to attack surface ships, or even conceivably anti-ship missiles. Orca could drop off cargos on the seabed, detect, or even lay mines. The modular hardware payload system and open architecture software ensures Orca could be rapidly configured based on need.

This sort of versatility in a single, low-cost package is fairly unheard of in military spending. The nearest rough equivalent is the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, which costs $584 million each and has a crew of 40. While LCS is faster, has the benefit of an onboard crew, and carries a larger payload, Orca is autonomous—and cheaper by orders of magnitude.

For missions such as anti-submarine warfare, dozens of cheaper Orcas could saturate an area better than a single surface ship or perhaps even a manned submarine. A single shore-based crew could control several Orcas, allowing the autonomous subs to operate independently for days or even weeks at a time before issuing fresh orders.

For more details read here: popularmechanics

 

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