This cousin to R2D2 cuts a squatty, homely figure at 21 inches long, 20 inches wide and 16 inches tall. But it has a tenacity that military commanders like.
It’s a little crawling robot from Point Loma-based SeaBotix Inc.
SeaBotix has turned out almost 1,000 copies of its undersea robots, and about half have gone to the military.
It is one example of commercial, off the shelf equipment that the military uses.
The world of defense contracting is frequently a world of custom products: think of the B-2 bomber or a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. But Uncle Sam also buys COTS — that is, commercial off the shelf items — using them as-is or with modifications.
Military clients can customize their SeaBotix robots. At their heart, however, the robots are off the shelf products, said Sean Newsome, global business development manager for the company.
Clients include the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force. Militaries from Australia, Canada, Poland and Singapore are customers, said Newsome. Domestic clients include the Department of Homeland Security, as well as law enforcement agencies such as the Franklin County, Wash., Sheriff’s Department.
The robots can “fly” through open water, sending images back via a tether. Some are equipped with wheels or treads, and a suction device that makes the wheels adhere to hard surfaces, such as the hull of a ship. A technician can steer one of the specially equipped robots across the steel expanse of the hull to inspect its surface.
SeaBotix recently introduced a system in a 20-foot shipping container that has everything needed to deploy and control a robot at depths of up to 13,000 feet.
Chairman and CEO Don Rodocker has been with SeaBotix since its beginning in 2001. Norwalk, Conn.-based Bolt Technology Corp. acquired SeaBotix in early 2011.
Cheaper Than Custom
Commercial off the shelf technology is familiar to the scientists, technicians and procurement specialists at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, or Spawar. The Navy information technology command has its headquarters in San Diego.
At one San Diego lab, technicians are working to create a common “backbone” for electronic communications aboard Navy ships. Engineers hope that one day this communications infrastructure will support 3G and 4G wireless service, Wi-Fi, radio frequency identification technology and biometric equipment, said Keith Thackery, a Navy project manager with Spawar Systems Center Pacific.
The Navy is still doing early work on the system and is testing electronics from various vendors, Thackery reported.
He said that commercial off the shelf products have the advantage of being readily available and cheaper than products custom-developed for the military.
As for development cycles? “The commercial side moves a lot quicker in getting things developed,” said Chris Von Mueller, branch head for integrated voice networks at SSC Pacific.
The 1990s spelled the end for “mil spec,” when the military laid out detailed specifications for its electronics, Von Mueller said. Unless it is buying weapons systems, the military has favored commercial off the shelf products, he said.
If successful, Navy engineers are considering putting the new-style backbone aboard its new ships, such as the next-generation destroyer and the littoral combat ship. Retrofitting existing ships “has its own challenges,” Von Mueller said.
The backbone, incidentally, would support a transition to what’s called “BYOD,” or bring your own device, said Von Mueller. The BYOD concept is a network that supports a user’s preferred device — whether it is an Apple Inc. iPad or a smartphone running on the Android operating system — rather than assigned equipment. In the military setting, the network operator would have full control over when people would be able to use the network, Von Mueller said.
Pentagon Buys Commercial Gear
Hospital equipment is another area where the Pentagon buys commercial gear. Case in point: in the fall, Naval Medical Center San Diego installed three Philips Ingenia 3T Omega magnetic resonance imaging machines. The $15 million project was considered the largest radiology capital equipment project in the history of Balboa naval hospital. Royal Philips Electronics is based in the Netherlands.
Carlsbad-based ViaSat Inc. produces satellite communication gear and offers services to customers, including the U.S. military. The government uses ViaSat’s commercially developed LinkWay and ArcLight systems with minor modifications, said a ViaSat spokesman. Military services also use the company’s Exede network.
In addition, the military buys ViaSat antennas.
Uncle Sam has to make occasional small purchases, and of course, it uses COTS.
Defense Department commands can use credit cards called government purchase cards. Though individual purchases are capped at $3,000, those purchases add up. The San Diego Military Advisory Council’s latest annual study of the military’s economic impact on the area estimated that the Pentagon would spend $90 million in government purchase card transactions during fiscal 2012. Of that, $31 million went toward business services, including printing. Some $25 million went toward miscellaneous retail purchases, including auto parts. General merchandise and building materials counted for about $7.5 million each. Electronic components made up about $2.5 million of purchases. A like amount went toward laboratory and medical instruments.
The same report predicted $90 million worth of government purchase card transactions in fiscal 2013.
Not Always Right Solution
COTS is frequently a quick way to buy something, and it’s a money-saver.
But not all the time.
A 2009 report from the Defense Science Board, titled “Buying Commercial: Gaining the Cost/Schedule Benefits for Defense Systems,” laid out scenarios where COTS purchases went haywire.
One troubled program was the littoral combat ship. The Navy took delivery of its first LCS in 2008.
When the Pentagon went to buy its fleet of very fast, shallow-water ships, it decided to buy two types from two prime contractors. Both primes worked with a builder of high-speed commercial ships: Lockheed Martin Corp. paired up with Marinette Marine Corp., while General Dynamics worked with Austal.
Pentagon officials decided the resulting designs were not what they wanted. The production schedule slipped. Costs grew.
“Confusion over the mission and design requirements … negated many commercial advantages,” the report states. Case in point: the Navy felt the ships would have to deploy in very heavy seas, with waves of 30 to 45 feet. That is more than what a commercial ship would ever have to face. Both hull designs had to go back for a “full redesign.”
Shipbuilders also proposed automated systems for putting out fires. The Navy said the LCS needed much more than that.
“For these reasons, the commercial advantages were not fully realized in the initial production, although eventual benefits are anticipated,” the 2009 report states. “Each ship is estimated to cost more than $500 million, more than doubling the original cost requirement of $220 million.”
The document acknowledges there are successful COTS purchases. One of them is the Navy’s P-8A Poseidon aircraft. The Poseidon is a militarized version of Boeing’s 737 commercial aircraft. The Navy says the aircraft will carry a crew of nine and specialized sensors as well as missiles, torpedoes and mines. Its job will be anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.
The Pentagon’s “Buying Commercial” study lists no less than eight kinds, or levels, of COTS purchases. These vary by the amount the products need to be modified for military service.
One level where officials make only minor modifications to a product is known in Defense Department lingo as “painting it green.”