Orca is an autonomous extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle (XLUUV) being manufactured by Boeing to meet the growing demand for undersea operational awareness and payload delivery. The US Navy will use the XLUUV for potential capabilities such as mine countermeasures, anti-surface warfare (ASuW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), electronic warfare (EW) and strike missions.
The long-range underwater vehicle is being developed to perform critical missions with reliability. It is expected to provide the ability to launch, recover, operate and establish communications with the vehicle from a home base away from the area of operation without the need for navy personnel.
The underwater vehicles are expected to be delivered by June 2022 under a programme to address a Joint Emergent Operational Need (JEON).
Orca XLUUV development details
The US Navy selected Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the first phase of the XLUUV programme with the companies securing design contracts in September 2017. The programme aims to create an unmanned system that can operate independently at sea for months. The design contract awarded to Lockheed Martin was worth $43.17m, while the one awarded to Boeing was approximately $42,27m.
The US Navy intends to procure a total of nine vehicles under the programme. Boeing won a $43m contract in the second phase of the competition to build, test and deliver four XLUUVs and related support elements in February 2019. A contract modification worth $46.7m was awarded to the company in March 2019 for the production of an additional prototype vehicle, bringing the total contract value to $274m.
Boeing partnered with Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) to design and develop new unmanned undersea vehicles for the US Navy’s XLUUV programme in June 2017.
Orca XLUUV design and features
Boeing’s winning design for the Orca programme is based on its Echo Voyager fully autonomous XLUUV, which was introduced in March 2016.
The company tested various configurations of Echo Voyager and improved the performance of the platform. The vehicle underwent the first sea trial in 2017, while the second test was conducted in 2019.
Echo Voyager has an overall length of 26m, including the length of added payload carriage. It is 2.6m-wide and weighs 50t in air.
The submersible can carry out operations for months as it is fitted with a hybrid rechargeable power system and modular payload bay. It can be launched and recovered without the requirement of support ships.
Orca will feature a modular design with an open architecture and potential for reconfiguration. It will provide guidance and control, autonomy, navigation and manoeuvring capabilities. The XLUUV will be integrated with interfaces to allow for future upgrades to accommodate the latest technology and meet evolving threats. It will be able to travel to an area of operation, loiter there, communicate, deploy payloads and return to its home base.
An Active buoyancy control system aboard will mainly provide capabilities, including autonomous buoyancy control, seafloor mooring and forward and aft trim control.
Navigation and communications
The vehicle’s navigation system includes Kalman filtered inertial navigation unit (INU), doppler velocity logs (DVLs), depth sensors and seafloor long baseline (LBL) transponders. Echo Voyager is also equipped with GPS to support its operations on or near the surface. Encrypted Inmarsat IV, Iridium, Wi-Fi and FreeWave enabled communications are used for command, control and mission re-planning, while the vehicle performs near-surface operations.
The submersible uses acoustic communications for command and control during submerged operations.
Orca is expected to be equipped with forward-looking sonar (FLS) and autonomous obstacle avoidance algorithms to avoid obstacles. The FLS and the DVL facilitate terrain-following capability at the seabed.
Payloads carried on Orca XLUUV
The modular payload bay will have the capacity to hold 8t of dry weight and the bay is powered by an 18kW battery. It will also accommodate external payloads. The payload bay will have interfaces to support requirements for existing and future payloads. The vehicle will be able to carry sonar payloads, including Raytheon PROSAS PS60-6000 synthetic aperture sonar for improved ocean floor mapping.
Orca XLUUV will cruise at a minimum speed of 2.5k and a maximum speed of 8k. The optimal speed of the vehicle will be in the range of 2.5k to 3k. It will offer an operational range of nearly 6,500nm.
The vehicle will surface onto the water with its mast raised and activate its diesel-powered generators when the onboard lithium-ion batteries are almost discharged.