- Associated Press - Saturday, July 23, 2016

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - Without a doubt, Proteus is the smallest seagoing vessel in the inventory of Huntington Ingalls Industries, but it still has managed to attract attention.

The undersea vehicle, nearly 26 feet long, could find its way to Hollywood or the nearest bookstore. To date, the company has been approached about using it in a made-for-TV series, a movie and a novel.

As flattering as such overtures might be, the company is angling to make a bigger splash with the Navy.

Proteus is the pride and joy of the Undersea Solutions Group, a company in Panama City, Florida, that last year joined HII, better known for making nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, amphibious warships, destroyers and Coast Guard cutters.

It can operate autonomously or with a crew, and it represents a collaboration between the folks at Undersea Solutions and another company, Battelle, which is responsible for the autonomy system and batteries.

The name Proteus is a nod to the Greek sea god who could change shape, and the submersible’s flexibility is its strength, said Ross Lindman, USG’s vice president of operations.

It can spy on the enemy, fire weapons, transport gear or patrol a harbor. It can switch from manned to unmanned during the same mission, delivering divers to a target, then going off elsewhere.

During the Sea Air Space Exposition several weeks ago, Proteus was a crowd magnet for curious onlookers. While not yet a major player with the Navy, Lindman said Proteus is “absolutely” in the mix.

Naval Special Warfare plans to test out Proteus later this year. It will deploy a new camera system and carry Navy SEALs in addition to the company’s pilot and co-pilot, Lindman said. The interior can carry two people in the front and four in the rear. The compartment floods with water, so each occupant must wear a breathing apparatus.

It will also have a role in the Advanced Undersea Weapons Program run by the Office of Naval Research, which will look at using submersibles in an offensive role.

Proteus has a top speed of 10 knots. It can operate 150 feet below the water with a crew or 200 feet when unmanned. It weighs 8,240 pounds.

The emerging world of undersea vehicles has been compared to the development of airborne drones, which skyrocketed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today the Navy operates dozens of undersea vehicles with human supervision, collecting environmental data and conducting mine countermeasure operations, said Lt. j.g. Seth Clarke, a Navy spokesman, in an email to the Daily Press.

Exactly how many undersea vehicles the Navy wants to order hasn’t been determined, but it plans to “pursue a family of systems” depending on needs, he said.

As capabilities improve, undersea vehicles will assume more roles for the Navy. They are likely to operate closer to the ocean floor than a Virginia-class submarine, and work in shallow or hostile waters. With expanded endurance, autonomy and the ability to carry more sensors or payloads, undersea vehicles will eventually operate for days or weeks with minimal human interaction, Clarke said.

Suppliers currently under contract with the Navy are General Dynamics, Hydroid and Teledyne Brown Engineering.

“The Navy is open to all industry partners and continuously evaluating where industry developments coincide with fleet requirements,” Clarke said.

Lindman says the ability of Proteus to operate as either manned or unmanned is one of its strengths. The other is its payload capacity.

“It is truly a payload truck,” he said.

In April, Proteus successfully completed 30-day simulated unmanned mission in a test tank in Panama City. Computers in a van next to the tank fed it data to simulate running a mission in open water. It traveled the equivalent of 2,412 nautical miles and ran submerged for 720 hours.

Lindman said he expects the Navy to pick and choose among its many options for unmanned undersea vehicles.

“I think they will look at vehicles out there - test them, lease them, see what they can do,” he said.

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Information from: Daily Press, https://www.dailypress.com/

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