As part of its plan to turn undersea drones from remote controlled tools to proper members of the fleet, the US Navy has awarded a US$43.2 million contract to Lockheed Martin to design the Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV). The focus of a two-phase competition to produce up to nine vehicles, the XLUUV Orca will be an autonomous submarine capable of carrying out multiple missions without a human crew or the need for continuous remote supervision.

Underwater drones have revolutionized undersea warfare as much as they have aerial combat. In recent years, they've been used for salvage, minehunting, and surveillance among many other tasks. Unfortunately, the current generation of unmanned underwater systems have only limited autonomy. This means they don't deliver much of a cost saving due to the need for conventional ships and submarines to transport, launch, and retrieve them.

The Orca isn't just larger than present underwater drones (exactly how large is yet to be determined). Its open-architecture specifications are for a modular, long-range autonomous vehicle with a reconfigurable payload bay. When operational, it will be able to steam out of base autonomously, travel to its duty station and remain there until needed while deploying payloads and communicating periodically with headquarters. At the end of its mission, it will then return home under its own control.

The idea is that this will not only make the Orca cheaper to operate, but that it will also be able to carry out strategic-level missions without putting sailors at risk. In this way, it becomes a force multiplier for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; mine countermeasures; indication and warning notification; and as an anti-submarine warfare training platform.

No timetable has been announced, but Lockheed says that the Orca is required for a Joint Emerging Operational Need, making it a priority program.

Lockheed Martin