^ Echo Voyager: The Marathon Champion among Boeing’s Underwater Drones – Image Courtesy of Boeing at http://www.boeing.com/features/2016/03/bds-echo-voyager-03-16.page
The Submarine Drone-Ward Shift of Shipping
Think of Boeing and images of refined, enormous aircrafts start to flash our trained mind. Unsurprisingly, the company is also working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop crafts for space travel.
Boeing however is not content with scaling the astronomical heights of space alone. The company has been diving in the deepest and darkest recesses of the oceans using submarine drones. And it has been doing so from as far back as the 1960s. Very soon, it will launch another.
In March this year, Boeing announced its next submarine drone, the Echo Voyager. Based on the company’s experience with its earlier submarine drones – Echo Seeker and Echo Ranger – the Echo Voyager is a proactive wonder that seeks to solve the challenges of future.
Business Insider believes the world will spend a staggering $98 billion to acquire drones between 2014 and 2024. Of these, $11.78 billion will go into purchasing commercial drones. And we are not even talking of the research budget.
Navies around the world – U.S., Russia, Japan, China, and many others – are looking to harness the boundless potential of submarine drones. In fact, the U.S. Navy created a special position, manned by a person of the rank of a Brigadier General, to develop such drones in April 2015.
Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Defense has designated a $232.9 million budget for acquiring unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for the financial year (FY) 2016. This is $86.7 million more than that in FY 2015. Again, this does not include the research budget.
Estimates by the Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Applications Center, a non-profit industry advocacy organization, there are 251 different UUVs on 144 separate platforms at present. The numbers will grow as the technology advances. Make no mistake; this is a technology on the rise.
Echo Voyager & Other Drones of Boeing
Submarine or underwater drones can be either by remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) or unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs). ROVs are tethered to the surface support ships and operated by the pilot team. UUVs are free of wired connections and operate autonomously.
It is always better to deploy submarine drones instead of humans for perilous and cumbersome missions such as exploring critical marine infrastructure at high-pressured and oxygen-starved ocean depths, investigating hulls and other underwater parts of ships, and the like.
Back in 2011, Boeing felt the need for an underwater drone that could operate autonomously for prolonged durations without the need to come rushing back to the support ship for a recharge. And one that would not need 24X7 human support.
While impressive, the Echo Ranger and Echo Seeker could stay underwater only for few days at a time and cover no more than tens or some hundreds of miles. These were only slightly better than wired drones, those with long umbilical cords attached to their mother ships.
Phantom Works, the research and development division at Boeing, took up the challenge. The result: Echo Voyager, capable of being operational for six months at a time and running for a marathon 7,500 miles before feeling the need for a recharge.
What makes the Echo Voyager capable of running for six months is the hybrid rechargeable power system and a modular payload mechanism. A fitting solution to the challenge of limited endurance of underwater drones.
As Lance Towers, Director of Sea and Land at Phantom Works, aptly puts it: the defense budget of the U.S. is not going up and neither is the budget of any of its customers. But their requirements are rising by the day.
Echo Voyager is just the answer to such peculiar set of requirements – more for less. Designed with in-built versatility, the drone has already roused the interest of a broad spectrum of clients.
For, the Echo Voyager can undertake umpteen missions. It can make bathymetric maps of the ocean floor, examine underwater infrastructure, collect water samples, aid with payload deployment and assist for oil-gas exploration.
Not that the Echo Ranger and Echo Seeker cannot execute such operations. But the Echo Voyager can do so quickly, more cost effectively, and without needing to engage the services of a surface vessel and crew. Its wide array of applications includes:
- Surface Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance / Information Warfare
- Payload Development
- Critical Infrastructure Protection
- Weapons Platform
- Subsea Search and Reconnaissance
- Anti-Submarine Warfare Search and Barrier
- Submarine Decoy
- Mine Countermeasures
- Battleship Preparation
At 51-feet, the Echo Voyager is longer than its cousins, the 18-feet Echo Ranger and 32-feet Echo Seeker. But what really sets it apart from them is its endurance – it can operate underwater autonomously for months on end collecting data for scientific, military, or other such purposes.
Silver zinc or lithium-ion batteries power the Echo Voyager, just like in the Echo Ranger and Echo Seeker. Unlike its cousins though, the Echo Voyager does not rush back to its support ship when running out of battery power.
Instead, it rises to the surface, kick-starts its diesel generator, and recharges its batteries. It has to rise to the surface while recharging because it needs to discharge the exhaust to air.
What is more, you do not need to launch and retrieve the Echo Voyager from a surface support vessel – it can depart from and arrive at shore-based facilities on its own. This cuts the costs that are otherwise incurred for operating the support vessel and engaging crew.
If researchers need access to the collected data before the Echo Voyager completes its exploration mission, the drone can rise to the surface, unfurl its antenna, and transmit the required data by syncing with satellites. Plus, it can plunge and operate at depths of 11,000 feet.
This marks tremendous improvement over the present way of gathering data via underwater drones. You deploy the vessel using a surface ship and wait for the drone to come back before you can retrieve information. When the vessel is out at sea, you can do nothing but wait.
One reason for the size of the Echo Voyager – it is 51 feet long as compared to the 18 feet Echo Ranger and 32 feet Echo Seeker – is the redundant back up power systems. These mechanisms endow the drone with the said 7,500 mile range.
And while doing all this, Boeing has not lost sight of the convenience of its future customers. For connecting with satellites and sending data to its customers, the Echo Voyager uses standard, commercially-available interfaces. Clients do not have to adopt their equipment or software.
Based on its OSIRIS vehicle design of the early 1990s, Boeing developed the Echo Ranger in collaboration with Oceaneering and Fugro. With an aluminum hull, the Echo Ranger comes with an easily configurable payload bay.
You can launch and recover the Echo Ranger using a crane. It is capable of implementing short term missions in deep sea, coastal, and polar regions up to a depth of 10,000 feet for a maximum range of 80 miles.
Originally developed in 2001 for undersea environmental surveys needed for oil and gas exploration, the Echo Ranger is compatible with containerized transport.
In April 2015, the Echo Ranger captured sonar images of the USS Independence, that was sunk in 1951. It used Coda Octopus’ Echoscope 3D sonar imaging technology for the images and was deployed from a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) vessel.
Boeing then launched the Echo Seeker in 2015. This drone fits well inside a standard 40-foot container and can ply at 3.5 mph for 265 miles without replenishing its batteries. Transporting such large, heavy drones is a complex task and hence the container-transport-friendly feature.
Designers imparted the Echo Seeker with smart, autonomous features because once under water, it only has limited contact with its surface controllers – there is no radio, GPS, or line-of-sight communications. The drone has to figure out the obstacles and the mapping areas by itself.
After completing its mission, the Echo Seeker surfaces to a preset location and keeps encircling till the surface support crew retrieve it. The drone will drop to the bottom and anchor itself if not recovered. It can stay in this position for months by switching off non-essential power systems.
Failsafe mechanisms of the Echo Seeker definitely score a point over Echo Ranger. It can get back to the preset retrieval point using two auxiliary thrusters if motors and controllers fail. And if the battery dies, the backup battery gets the drone to the surface.
While still undergoing rigorous trials at Boeing’s research pools in Huntingdon Beach, California, the Echo Voyager has already made breaking news. If things go as planned, the company will put this wonder drone open ocean testing in this summer. We can hardly wait.
Although commercial shipping transports over 90% of the globally traded merchandise, it is not as glamorous as the automotive or the aerospace sector. This is perhaps why submarine drones do not manage to grab as many eyeballs as aerial and surface drones do.
Be as it may, submarine drones are no less effective. As the technology for submarine drones advances further, they will definitely grow in stature and radically alter the way we do things.
And develop they will, for we live in the age of technology where positive and continuous change is the only certainty. The rest is subject to change with precious little notice.
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