SHARC in the Water: Boeing and Liquid Robotics to Address US Navy’s Undersea Dominance Shortfalls

Marty Kauchak*

Boeing and Liquid Robotics have partnered to develop the SensorHosting Autonomous Remote Craft (SHARC)to respond to US Navy’sundersea dominance operatingshortfalls. The project takes Liquid Robotics’ technology baseline established for the commercial sector and in some military applications, and uses Boeing’s decades of defense expertise, to solve the US Navy customer’s mission needs. Leaders from the industry teams provided this author with an overview of SHARC during the 2015 US Navy League.

Gary Gysin, the president and CEO of Liquid Robotics, noted his company’s design goal has been to develop an autonomous surface vehicle that has a persistent presence at sea – staying operational for up to one year – and to which sensors can be added to “listen to things.”

A float, on the surface, is coated with solar panels to provide power to the computers, communications and other onboard systems. Propulsion (of up to three knots) is enabled by wave energy.

The SHARC has a “plug-and-play”architecture,using best-of-breed equipment based on a mission. Gysin explained, “This is like a data rack in a data center. It is based on the high technology concept of IT backplane [an electrical connector that joins several electrical circuits together], LINUX operating system and JAVA control system – the idea is to allow other developers to add sensors and software applicationsto the platform for a particular mission.”

While the vehicle can tow “up to a ton behind the wing rack,” Liquid Robotics’ SHARC typically tows acoustic arrays, hydrophone lines on the order of 50 meters for commercial customers such as Schlumberger in the oil and gas sector. Liquid Robotics has also found a market with unspecified nations’ navies and coast guards to provide a surveillance system, in place of a patrol aircraft or ships, for the detection of incursions in economic exclusion zones, illegal fishing and other activities. “This is strictly a ‘tip and que’ function where other assets interdict,” Gysin said.

Egan Greenstein, the senior director of Autonomous Maritime Systems at Boeing Military Aircraft, said the vehicle’s technology base was mature enough to provide a return on investment for the Navy – “permitting it to establish a distributed sensor system that could complete undersea detection, surface ship detection and signals intelligence detection.” In SHARC, the industry team is satisfied with offering its Navy customer a “trip wire” or early detection or queing sort of system. This doesn’t “do the most sophisticated analysis and tracking, but rather alerts them that something ‘interesting’ has happened,” Greenstein explained. SHARC has a persistent presence of up to one year, providing a further return on investment. “It only needs to call in the detailed analysis platform,” the industry expert noted, and added, “this is where SHARC in a very, very covert way will integrate with a P-8 or UAV, a surface ship or a submarine to say, ‘Something is happening. Bring in the big guns.’”

Tactically, SHARC would be used in a distributed manner much like a sonobouy field, to provide a real-time communications layer on the ocean – detecting things under the water – and providing linkage to other nodes in a network.

Today, the industry team has a fleet of SHARCs towing arrays off Hawaii completing developmental tests for the US Navy. “We have three SHARCs off of Monterrey, California doing surface ship detection tasks. These are company initiatives where we are collecting data and building toward an integrated demonstration, or operational test, this summer,” Greenstein remarked.

By the end of this year, the industry team expects to have a capability package that starts with undersea warfare, communicates via satellite to decision makers, and streams high-bandwidth data in real time to aircraft and other platforms.

*SDArabia’s US correspondent.

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