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Boeing's new sub works alone at 20,000 feet under the sea

Boeing's new sub works alone at 20,000 feet under the sea
Boeing's new Echo Seeker is a fully autonomous unmanned underwater vehicle. The 32-foot-long, 30,000-pound submarine is capable of operating at ocean depths up to 20,000 feet. (Courtesy Boeing)

Yes, it's a yellow submarine.

But no, you won't see the Beatles' cartoon likenesses, or anyone else, peering out the windows as Boeing's new sub dives deep beneath the waves.

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The aerospace company, best known for its commercial and military aircraft, is looking to expand its lineup of underwater vehicles for ocean researchers. In July, Boeing's Huntington Beach facility unveiled Echo Seeker, an unmanned, fully autonomous submarine capable of diving 20,000 feet below sea level.

The 32-foot-long, 6-foot-wide vessel is slated to be used by organizations such as the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and oil and gas companies, said Lance Towers, director of Boeing Advanced Technology Programs, which built the sub.

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"Boeing is leaning toward developing advanced vehicles that are very capable for multiple markets," he said. "We're very excited about this addition to our family of vehicles and we expect great things from it."

Echo Seeker can withstand roughly 9,200 pounds of pressure per square inch – by comparison, atmospheric pressure at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch – so it is capable of helping researchers map the ocean floor or find sunken vessels through use of sonar devices. It also can carry up to 6,000 pounds of equipment. The sub itself weighs 30,000 pounds.

"It has a set of acoustic sensors that will allow it to do some significantly fine-resolution topography mapping," Towers said.

The average depth of the ocean is about 14,000 feet, while the deepest part, the Challenger Deep at the southern end of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, is about 36,200 feet below the surface, according to NOAA.

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Unlike unmanned road vehicles and drones, which can be piloted via a radio or satellite signal, Echo Seeker has no remote control capabilities, navigating the murky depths and avoiding obstacles solely via its sonar system. It operates according to a voyage plan programmed into its computer, Towers said.

"You program the vehicle to do a specific task and once you launch it, it's basically on its own," he said. "Once it's submerged, you're not communicating with the autonomous underwater vehicle with satellite communications or some type of radio frequency, because it doesn't penetrate the ocean."

Though Towers acknowledged that things can go wrong at 20,000 feet underwater, he said Boeing is confident that it has developed a vessel capable of performing without human assistance.

"The good news for us is that we factored in, through basic, good engineering practices, what is required to make sure the vehicle always comes back," he said.

Echo Seeker is a follow-up to a 2001 Boeing vessel called Echo Ranger. That sub was about 18 feet long and 4 feet wide and capable of diving 10,000 feet.

Echo Ranger was used by oil and gas companies to survey the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA used it to assess fisheries off the coast of Catalina Island, and this past spring it did a survey of the USS Independence, a World War II aircraft carrier that was scuttled in 1951 off the Farallon Islands near San Francisco.

"It's the largest shipwreck in the U.S. National Marine Sanctuary, and NOAA was interested in looking at the integrity of the hull as it rests on the ocean floor at about 2,800 feet," he said.

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