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Navy Searches for an Underwater Terminator

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"I'll be back ... in about two months." If the U.S. Navy gets its way, this may be the big catchphrase from the next Terminator movie -- Terminator IV: Arnold Goes SCUBA Diving.

For a few months now, we've been hearing sonar rumblings of a big new Naval project to build a long-endurance, deep-diving robotic submarine. The project, now monikered "LDUUV" to denote the wished-for Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, aims to build a robot sub capable of operating away from base for 70 days at a time.

In August, I wrote about Boeing's (NYSE: BA  ) presumed entry into the competition, dubbed the Echo Ranger. In announcing its creation, Boeing noted that ER is an 18.5-foot-long vehicle weighing five tons, capable of making eight knots at sea, and diving to 10,000 feet. Crucially, the company promised that its sub would achieve the necessary 70-days' endurance "with the right power source." As it turns out, this is key.

You see, LDUUV will need to operate independently for long stretches of time. It must be smart enough to independently avoid obstacles such as fishing nets … and Greek islands. (iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) already has a small sub suited to that side of the task.) But LDUUV must also be able to operate far from base and not need to return for fuel for two months at a stretch. Right now, project managers are focusing on this latter task because, according to the Navy, "If you can't develop the energy we need, we can't do the mission."

So ... who can "develop the energy" they need?

The go-to choice for extended range underwater missions has historically been nuclear. But you can imagine the outcry if people discovered the U.S. was sending out fleets of potential Fukushima Daiichis to wander the seas unsupervised. Right now, speculation seems to be focusing on a fuel cell, or lithium-battery solution. It's not known which approach Boeing favors for its sub, but the fuel cell idea seems to suggest that Plug Power or Ballard Power could play a role here. On batteries -- well, many companies make rechargeable batteries. One company in particular that seems well suited to the task might be AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV  ) , which not only makes unmanned aerial vehicles already, but also has a fast-charging battery division that might be useful for "refueling" the LDUUV at sea.

The situation remains, shall we say, "fluid" -- but don't worry. Here at the Fool we'll keep an eye on it for you, and update you as developments happen.

Little companies like iRobot and AeroVironment can make big profits on government contracts. Read our new report and learn about two companies that are Too Small to Fail: Two Small-Caps the Government Won't Let Go Broke.

Fool contributor Rich Smith holds no position in any company mentioned, but Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of iRobot and AeroVironment. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (4)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 6:39 AM, GETRICHSLOW2 wrote:

    What about GD? They have pretty much been the go-to company on building subs. Are they completely out of the running.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 10:18 AM, TMFDitty wrote:

    That's right -- GD and Northrop (now Huntington Ingalls) have been the two primary shipbuilders for subs.

    I wouldn't count GD out by any means, as this is still early in the game. Also, GD has a robotics division, so they do have some interest in unmanned tech. All I can tell you for now is that I have not yet seen word of their involvement in the hunt for a robot sub contract -- doesn't mean they're not looking into it, though.


  • Report this Comment On February 05, 2012, at 12:04 AM, import2udirect wrote:

    How about an underwater gold miner, I know its not the navy's job, but sure could speed up the economic recovery and strengthen the greenback

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