Huntington Ingalls' Proteus mini-submarine. Image source: Huntington Ingalls.

The U.S. Navy wants a robotic submarine -- in fact, by 2020, the Navy would like to have a whole squadron  of robotic submarines prowling the oceans. The question is: Who will build all these robo-subs for the Navy?

Lockheed Martin (LMT -0.28%) tried. In fact, for 15 years Lockheed Martin has tried to get its remote multi-mission vehicle (RMMV) to work right -- so far, unsuccessfully. In May, the Navy finally got fed up with Lockheed's failure and threatened to call a halt to the entire $700 million program and farm the work out to someone else.

Boeing (BA -0.06%) and General Dynamics (GD -0.22%) are both vying to fill the gap left by Lockheed's failure. Boeing recently floated a 51-foot underwater boat that it calls the Echo Voyager. Boeing's new submarine is nearly three times as big as its original effort, the Echo Ranger, and is said to be capable of cruising the ocean on its own for months at a time, only phoning home to HQ for occasional status updates and to receive new orders.

Meanwhile, General Dynamics -- one of the biggest names in manned nuclear submarines -- has been investing in a small robo-sub that it calls Knifefish. Weighing in at less than one metric ton, Knifefish could be just what the Navy needs to replace Boeing's submarines with their primarily mine-hunting mission.

And now, we've just learned that there's a fourth contestant in this new Navy competition to build a militarized remote control submarine: Huntington Ingalls (HII -0.42%) is finally building its own robo-sub.

Introducing Proteus
Named for the Greek sea-god, Huntington Ingalls' new submarine, Proteus, was inherited when Huntington bought the Engineering Solutions Division of privately held  Columbia Group early last year. The new robo-sub -- which can also be manually operated, making it a "dual-mode" manned/unmanned craft -- already boasts some impressive statistics:

  • Twenty-Six feet in length, and weighing just over four tons, Proteus is bigger than General Dynamics' Knifefish, but about half the size of Boeing's latest Echo variant remote-control submarine.
  • Proteus' five-and-one-third-foot diameter is large enough to accommodate a SEAL diver, making the craft suitable, for example, for insertion of special operations forces onto a beach.
  • As currently designed, Proteus has a dive depth of 150 feet manned or 200 feet unmanned.
  • Its powerful motor is capable of propelling the craft at speeds up to 10 knots. (That's roughly the cruising speed of America's old Barbel-class diesel-electric submarine).

That's not bad for a prototype, and Huntington is already hard at work making Proteus better.

Last week, Huntington Ingalls updated us on its progress bringing Proteus to market. The prototype had just finished putting Proteus through a 30-day "simulated unmanned mission," in which the submarine traveled the equivalent of 2,412 nautical miles. During these tests, the craft ran at 3 knots-speed for as long as five hours at a time and cranked up its engine for sprints as fast as 6.5 knots, also simulating such events as stopping to surface and communicate with home base.

What it means to investors
Huntington Ingalls isn't as far along in its development of robotic submarines as Boeing is -- but it appears to be poised to leapfrog Lockheed Martin. And honestly, considering Huntington Ingalls' long history as one of the country's foremost submarine builders, that's only to be expected. Ultimately, the company says it hopes to parlay its work on Proteus into "development of a new generation of long-endurance UUVs to support the U.S. Navy."

With hundreds of millions of dollars in Navy contracts on the line, this is a treasure worth diving for.

Navy SEALS. Soon to be delivered by Proteus? IMAGE SOURCE: U.S. NAVY.