The US Navy has awarded Boeing a US$43 million contract to build four of its Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) and support gear. Built in partnership with Huntington Ingalls Industries, the 51-ft (15.5 m) long unmanned submarines will operate in blue water environments thanks to autonomous navigation systems and a fuel module providing a range of 6,500 nm (7,480 mi / 12,038 km).
Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) have been around for come time and are becoming increasingly common in naval and civilian marine operations, but so far they have been small, short range, and restricted to their host vessels. Blue water underwater operations have been the reserve of large, manned submarines, but the purchase of the Orca indicates that the US Navy recognizes the growing importance of robotic submarines to the fleet.
Derived from Boeing's Echo Voyager, the Orca is diesel-electric powered and can be used for mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and strike missions, among other applications. It has an open architecture, modular construction that includes a payload bay 34 ft (10.4 m) long with a volume of 2,000 cubic ft (56.6 cubic m).
The Orca requires no other ship to launch, recover, or support it due to its autonomous guidance and control, navigation, situational awareness, core communications, power distribution, propulsion and maneuvering, and mission sensor systems. Being unmanned also means it requires no life support systems, and it can remain submerged for months at a time.
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