Ross Wilkers

UNMANNED

Boeing pushes ahead with seabed to space strategy

Less than two years after its acquisition by Boeing, unmanned ocean vehicle maker Liquid Robotics is casting itself as a surface expression of the aerospace giant’s push toward greater seabed-to-space capabilities and overall autonomous market leadership.

Boeing extended its unmanned presence into the sea domain in December 2016 with the acquisition of drone maker Liquid Robotics, nearly eight years after Boeing acquired unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturer Insitu.

Almost six months after the Liquid Robotics acquisition, Boeing reorganized the business units within its defense segment to include a standalone autonomous systems unit that houses much of unmanned portfolio, including Liquid Robotics and Insitu.

I spoke with Liquid Robotics CEO Gary Gysin on Monday at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland. He provided an update on how the Silicon Valley outfit sees itself playing into the larger Boeing autonomous market play.

Namely, the company’s flagship Wave Glider unmanned surface vehicle is designed with payloads and sensors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in areas that can be difficult for manned vehicles to access.

“The idea is that if something’s happening undersea, how you get that information out in real time,” Gysin said. “The concept with this is grids of Wave Gliders that are sensor networks… gathering data and able to transmit it in real time.”

Liquid Robotics’ largest federal customer is the Navy and the company, founded in 2007, has worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dating back to 2011, Gysin said. Japan’s coast guard also uses Wave Glider for ocean observation missions.

When Boeing acquired Liquid Robotics, the airplane maker cited a coming need for “seabed-to-space” capabilities that combine communications and data links from the water to manned and unmanned aircraft, plus satellites.

Where Liquid Robotics and its Wave Glider fit into the larger Boeing autonomous story, Gysin said, is to round out the parent company’s portfolio with a “surface-of-the-ocean answer” to the already vast aerial lineup.

“You have things undersea that can’t communicate in real time, you have aerial things that can’t talk to things undersea, and so we kind of fit that layer of the gateway communication capability between these platforms,” Gysin said.

In this setup, Liquid Robotics collaborates with Boeing’s other autonomous organizations such as Argon ST, Insitu and the team responsible for the underwater Echo Voyager vehicle Boeing is offering for the Navy’s “Orca” underwater drone competition. It is competing against Lockheed Martin.

Liquid Robotics hosts Argon ST-made sensors on the Wave Glider, which Gysin said is also able to connect and find an Echo Voyager platform. 

“We can find something of interest and let the ScanEagle know and it can come over to get video and eyes on the platform,” Gysin said.

The next milestone Liquid Robotics is working on is connecting Wave Glider to the Boeing P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane. Liquid Robotics envisions its vehicle acting as a persistent network for the Poseidon to help identify targets, Gysin said.

While the underlying technology is there, Gysin said the “overall category of all autonomous systems is still in early days” with respect to adoption.

“I don’t think it’s a technology thing, it’s more of a cultural thing. Instead of having the manned ships and aircraft, you’re going to replace those things with autonomous vessels and aircraft,” Gysin said.

“In our space because it’s ‘newer,’ you always have to have somebody leaning forward and taking the risk.

In part through Liquid Robotics, Boeing eyes the waters as another avenue for data collection to essentially create an “Internet of Things” or “digital ocean” through a vast sensor network.

Gysin said that despite the oceans covering almost two-thirds of the Earth, only 5 percent of the seas is known.

“The ocean’s a harsh place with corrosion and waves and horrible weather,” Gysin said. “There are a lot of important reasons why we want to know about the ocean.”

(NOTE: This article was updated April 11 to clarify that Wave Glider is an unmanned surface vehicle and not an underwater vehicle as previously stated)

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at rwilkers@washingtontechnology.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also find and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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