For five long years, Boeing (NYSE:BA) has striven to build the Navy a working robotic submarine. We knew they were working on it -- but what's surprising is how much better Boeing's robo-sub has become than our expectations.
Better ... and bigger.
Bigger and better
To date , Boeing says it has actually developed two robot submarines -- Echo Ranger (18 feet long) and Echo Seeker (32 feet). Both submarines need to be carried to their takeoff point by ship, deployed, and then reloaded for transport back to port, however. Also, neither one can operate away from its mothership for more than two or three days at a time. Accordingly, Boeing considered both "Ranger" and "Seeker" to be test beds for something better to come.
That "something better" appeared last week, when Boeing drew the curtain on its latest iteration of the "Echo" line of robotic submarines -- and it's pretty big news.
The new Echo Voyager is a fully functional 51-foot submarine. That's only one-seventh the length of a Los Angeles -class nuclear attack submarine built in tandem by Huntington Ingalls (NYSE:HII) and General Dynamics (NYSE:GD). But whereas a Los Angeles-class boat requires a crew of 130 sailors to operate, Boeing's robotic Echo Voyager requires a crew of... none.
In fact, Echo Ranger doesn't even need a crewed "mothership" to support it. Boasting a "hybrid rechargeable power system," Echo Voyager can depart a port under its own power, and operate at sea "for months at a time" before returning to base. While operating thus independently, the craft can surface from time to time to transmit data back to its controllers at home.
According to Boeing, the robotic submarine will be able to conduct a range of missions -- from surveillance to minesweeping to payload deployment to "unmanned aerial vehicle operation" -- all autonomously. This, says Boeing Phantom Works Sea & Land Director Lance Towers : "It is a complete game-changing approach to how autonomous underwater systems will be used in the future."
What does it mean to investors?
Boeing hasn't released a price for Echo Voyager yet -- or even confirmed that anyone is interested in buying. (But I think we can guess at one buyer who might be interested). Whatever the price turns out to be, Boeing believes this submarine will find a ready market among military buyers, scientific agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and even international commercial concerns, such as the deep sea oil drilling industry. Because right now, it sounds like Echo Voyager is a robotic submarine like no other on Earth.
Boeing has big plans to exploit this unique product, too, describing Echo Voyager as a "baseline vehicle" which can be reconfigured as buyers demand, and analogizing it to the Boeing 737. Like the 737, which sells a lot of units to airline customers -- but performs double duty as the basis of the P-8A Poseidon military aircraft as well -- Boeing plans to build both commercial and military variants of Echo Voyager.
Will Echo Voyager become as big a success as the Boeing 737, the best-selling airplane in Boeing history? Probably not -- at least not in its prototype form. But with development ongoing, we expect to see Boeing's Echo line of autonomous underwater vehicles continue to evolve, and grow in both size and capability. It should be a fascinating story to watch -- and at the near-11% profit margins Boeing earns on its Defense, Space & Security products, a profitable story as well.
Echo Voyager is scheduled to begin sea trials off the California coast this summer .
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 278 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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