LOS ANGELES — An 18-foot, bright-yellow submarine drone is being tested off the coast of Santa Catalina Island for possible use by the U.S. military to stalk enemy waters, patrol local harbors for national security threats and scour ocean floors to detect environmental hazards.
Although robotic aircraft already play a critical role in modern warfare, taking out insurgents with missile strikes in the skies above Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the same robotic revolution hasn't taken place in the world's oceans.
Submarine drones have had limited use in ocean exploration, but Boeing Co. hopes to forge a much more sweeping role in national defense and environmental protection, said Mark Kosko, program director for the company's Unmanned Underwater Systems division.
"We're at the point that we can take this show on the road," he said. "This is a technology that can now move beyond the test role into a more meaningful role."
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The mini-sub was made at Boeing's defense systems facility in Anaheim.
The unmanned sub can withstand the crushing pressures of the deep ocean, diving to depths of 10,000 feet to glide above the seabed, dodging craggy mountains on its own. Engineers can envision a day when the vehicle is equipped with long-range torpedoes and sent on covert missions that last for months.
Boeing built the robotic submarine, dubbed Echo Ranger, in 2001 to capture high-resolution sonar images of underwater sea beds for the oil and gas industry. But now the company believes it has evolved the sub's onboard computers into a sophisticated system that will usher in a new era of unmanned submersibles.
The Echo Ranger program is not funded by the Navy, rather the endeavor is funded entirely by Boeing itself. The company would not disclose how much it has poured into research and design of the submarine.
"It has been a long road," Kosko said. "But this is the future."
Kosko hopes that it won't be long before it's running missions for the Navy.
"It's ready to be sent in harm's way," he said.