Gecko Robotics to speed submarine construction for US Navy
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette November 14, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Rear Adm. Scott Pappano came to Gecko Robotics’ North Side headquarters with a billion-dollar problem: The U.S. Navy needed a faster way to build submarines.
Its first Columbia class submarine was supposed to be ocean ready by 2027 as part of a $132 billion replacement plan, and critics were already warning that the timing and scope were unrealistic.
As it turned out, Gecko’s dexterous robots — which generate millions of data points as they traverse industrial equipment checking for cracks, corrosion and other damage — could offer just the solution. The ultrasonic bots were already inspecting Naval warships that had seen years of use. Gecko CEO Jake Loosararian argued they could be just as useful on the construction side, saving manufacturing costs while establishing data that could be referenced in future maintenance cycles.
“This is a critical asset that’s going to be defending our nation. It is so important to understand what the manufacturing looks like at the beginning to ensure that taxpayer dollars are actually getting a quality outcome,” he said.
In a matter of months, Gecko landed a demonstration contract to put its system to the test. The company would not say how much the contract — essentially a proof of concept — was worth. The Department of Defense only reports contracts over $7.5 million.
The expanded partnership comes as Pittsburgh tries to flex its advanced manufacturing prowess and capitalize on federal infrastructure investments. Gecko is part of a network of industry ambassadors organized by the Pittsburgh Technology Council that have pitched the region’s defense manufacturing potential in Washington.
The subs also add to a growing list of defense-backed projects in the region as concern grows over a possible conflict with China.
“Every ship that’s in dry dock and not patrolling seas means that the world is a riskier place,” Loosararian said.
The demonstration contract came through the BlueForge Alliance, a nonprofit integrator supporting the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base. It is not directly linked to the effort from Pittsburgh’s Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute to help the Navy triple submarine output through a consortium of Pennsylvania builders. Loosararian said he didn’t know about that work until the ARM Institute announced it on Oct. 19.
Gecko has previously focused on the private sector, gathering data from nearly 70,000 commercial assets across the globe, including ships, factories and power plants. Last October, it landed a three-year contract with Siemens Energy to inspect equipment across Europe.
But military applications have become increasingly promising.
“Our government sector is growing extremely quickly,” Loosararian said. “Next year, we’ll have some exciting new announcements of contracts we’re working on.”
For the naval subs, digital weld inspections will eliminate the risk of unknown weld conditions and free up skilled workers for higher value tasks, Gecko said. The company won’t work with finished submarines but rather with several tiers of the Columbia-class supply chain.
Gecko said prior to the partnership, the Navy kept submarine maintenance data on PDFs.
“These are Cold War-era ways of maintaining critical assets and infrastructure that protect our borders,” Loosararian said.
The Navy did not respond to a request by press time. BlueForge Alliance declined to comment.
Gecko’s system will allow builders to reference a “digital twin,” which the CEO described as “a pretty groundbreaking combination of software and robotics.”
“If you can understand from the beginning, it helps inform and predict what will go wrong and how to optimize the assets over time.”
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