Military autonomous vehicles are often associated with ground and air travel, but recently, Boeing subsidiary Liquid Robotics has been demonstrating that autonomous travel deep within the oceans is also possible. The firm’s autonomous Wave Glider (see figure), when integrated with Boeing’s sensors for defense applications, can locate undersea vehicles, hunt for mines, monitor land-based radar systems, and relay data to other systems—all while operating for months at a time via solar and wave power.
Many different groups throughout Boeing are investigating ways to capitalize on the almost unknown capabilities of the undersea robots. A Boeing team in Seattle, for example, has been asked to build a shelf for the Wave Glider so it can be dropped in the water by parachute. Boeing’s St. Louis-based autonomous systems integrator, Jim Bray, referred to the Wave Glider as “a hidden treasure…There’s a lot going on under the sea.”
The autonomous vehicle is covered with fiberglass panels and small antennas on its top side and tethered to a wing-like propulsion system beneath it. It communicates by means of low-earth-orbit-satellite (LEOS) links through a command-and-control unit and surface radio modem.
“It’s revolutionary stuff,” said Scott Willcox, Liquid Robotics technology lead. “It’s like reinventing the sail—fundamentally, it’s a new way to get around the ocean. What you can do with it is almost limitless.” The Wave Glider joined Boeing’s growing collection of autonomous vehicles earlier this year as part of its Defense, Space & Security’s newly formed Autonomous Systems business. Boeing views the unmanned surface vehicle as a vital middle step to creating seabed-to-space communications, as required for connecting data transmissions from undersea vehicles to orbiting satellites.
Testing performed with Wave Gliders earlier this year showed how transponders placed on the ocean floor by the Wave Glider conceivably could provide an oceanic GPS. An unmanned undersea vehicle in need of updating its location could use these underwater acoustic-based positioners to determine where it is and never have to surface.