SAN DIEGO -- The next frontier for unmanned military drones may not be solely in the skies. It could be undersea.
The U.S. Navy and defense contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and others are increasingly focusing on ocean drones as the next big market for unmanned technology.
Lockheed Martin Ventures in September month invested an undisclosed amount in San Diego-based Ocean Aero, a 25-employee startup that is developing the Submaran –– a solar and wind powered ocean drone capable of operating above and below the surface.
"The ability to be environmentally powered allows us to maneuver at great persistence because it's renewable," said Eric Patten, chief executive of Ocean Aero and a former Navy officer. "And then to be able to transition that vehicle from the surface to a sub-surface vehicle that has significant capability under water, that is truly unique."
Lockheed Martin Ventures typically invests $1 million to $5 million in young companies. "Ocean Aero represents the next generation of environmentally powered autonomous systems," said Chris Moran, executive director of Lockheed Martin Ventures, in a statement. "Our investment will allow us to better respond to customers' maritime needs with technology solutions for a diverse set of missions."
Other companies are betting on ocean drones. Last year Boeing bought a Bay Area startup, Liquid Robotics, which is developing unmanned submarine technology. General Dynamics and L3 Technologies also have acquired ocean unmanned systems firms over the past 18 months. The U.S. military has plans to invest as much as $3 billion into undersea systems over the coming years, according to a report last year by the Washington Post.
"Blue Tech for the maritime defense sector feels like where Clean Tech was a decade ago," said Greg Murphy, executive director of The Maritime Alliance, a San Diego trade group for the Blue Tech industry. "There is momentum. The Navy is increasingly using autonomous systems, and the large defense contractors are starting to buy up smaller Blue Tech companies that are developing systems."
Boeing and Lockheed Martin recently were named finalists in the U.S. Navy's Orca Extra-Large Unmanned Underwater vehicle project, which aims to develop big submersible drones capable of handling long-distance missions with significant payloads.
Ocean Aero is not part of Lockheed's work on the Orca project. But the companies are working together more generally on underwater drone technology, Patten said.
"We have a strategic cooperation agreement with Lockheed as part of our recent deal," he said. "They have great expertise in a variety of things."