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Image: Wave Glider maritime robot
Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider floats on the surface of the ocean, but it’s propelled by a wave-powered undersea glider. (Liquid Robotics Photo)

The Boeing Co. says it has agreed to acquire Liquid Robotics, its teammate in a years-long effort to create surfboard-sized robots that can use wave power to roam the seas.

The acquisition is expected to help Boeing create military communication networks that can transmit information autonomously from the sea to satellites via Sensor Hosting Autonomous Remote Craft, or SHARCs.

Liquid Robotics was founded in 2007 and currently has about 100 employees in California and Hawaii. Once the deal is completed, the company will become a subsidiary of Boeing. The arrangement is similar to the one that applies to Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary that is headquartered in Bingen, Wash., and manufactures ScanEagle military-grade drones.

Just as the fixed-wing ScanEagle drones can gather and transmit data while they’re airborne, SHARCs can monitor maritime operations and send the information back via satellite to their handlers. Boeing also makes a 50-ton underwater robot called Echo Voyager that can explore the deep sea for six months at a time, as well as two smaller unmanned undersea vehicles. The SHARCs can serve as communication relays for those undersea robots.

The deal announced today underscores the fact that Boeing’s love affair with oceangoing drones is much more than a fling.

“With Liquid Robotics’ innovative technology and Boeing’s leading intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance solutions, we are helping our customers address maritime challenges in ways that make existing platforms smarter, missions safer and operations more efficient,” Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said today in a statement.

The SHARCs are versions of Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider robot, which is designed to generate power for itself using solar arrays as well as an innovative propulsion system that takes advantage of the energy differential between surface waves and the relative calm of deeper water. No fuel is required.

“When you put it at sea, it’s good for six months without a human touching it,” Egan Greenstein, senior director of autonomous maritime systems at Boeing Military Aircraft, told National Defense magazine in June. “We thought it had promise to solve hard Navy problems.”

The Navy tested the SHARC system last year as a sensor-equipped robotic tool for gathering intelligence and doing surveillance. “If it detected a threat, it would call home over satellite communications to tell decision-makers something is going on,” Greenstein said.

SHARCs could come into play in situations where the Navy wants to keep a low profile, where long-term surveillance is required, or where potential undersea threats such as submarines have to be monitored.

Terms of the acquisition agreement were not disclosed. The companies said that completion of the transaction “is subject to satisfaction of customary closing conditions.”

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