Weapons maker Lockheed builds submarine for oil rigs

Fri Aug 3, 2012 9:02pm EDT
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By Andrea Shalal-Esa

PALM BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N: Quote) is already the Pentagon's biggest supplier and the largest information technology provider for the U.S. federal government, but now it is turning its sights on a $1 billion niche market in the oil and gas industry.

At a small waterfront facility just outside Palm Beach, Florida, engineers have developed a 10-foot unmanned submarine named Marlin that uses sonar and other technologies developed for the U.S. military to inspect off-shore oil rigs in far less time and at lower cost than current systems.

The bright yellow unmanned undersea vehicle was tested last summer in the Gulf of Mexico at a facility owned by Chevron (CVX.N: Quote), generating detailed three-dimensional data that have piqued a great deal of interest in the industry.

A Lockheed crew is back in the area off Louisiana this week, where Marlin is surveying a number of offshore platforms owned by a big oil firm, generating the first commercial revenues for this small arm of Lockheed. Lockheed did not name the oil firm.

The project, first initiated in mid-2009, reflects growing efforts by big weapons makers like Lockheed to find revenues in adjacent markets as they brace for weaker defense spending in the United States and Europe after a decade of strong growth.

Rich Holmberg, vice president of Lockheed's mission and unmanned systems unit in Florida, sees bright prospects for the Marlin vehicle, given the huge and growing number of offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf and elsewhere; growing calls for increase regulation after the 2010 BP (BP.L: Quote) oil spill; and increased investment in offshore wind energy.

"We're kind of bullish," Holmberg told Reuters in a glass-walled conference room overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and several of the company's smaller research and support ships.

Holmberg, who previously headed Lockheed's naval helicopter programs, declined to estimate future possible sales or the per unit price, but said Lockheed believed it was the only company with the full set of capabilities offered by the Marlin vehicle at the moment.   Continued...

Developed by Lockheed Martin, a 10-foot unmanned submarine named Marlin using sonar and other technologies, is seen in this handout photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico, July 19, 2012. Marlin, was developed for the U.S. military to inspect and evaluate off-shore oil rigs in far less time and at lower cost than current systems. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Handout