Subscribe for 99¢

Imagine a big refinery fire. Flames are everywhere; it’s far too dangerous for firefighters to approach. A drone flies above. A robot tractor moves below with the job of turning off a fuel valve deep in the complex.

Can the drone guide the robot through the tangled mess and to the valve?

Solving that sort of thing is the task of a new facility in St. Charles that Boeing workers call “the Castle.” The nickname comes from its real title, the Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory, or CASL.

The idea is to develop unmanned vehicles that can communicate with each other as well as humans on the ground. Boeing sees a future for that in civilian life and on the battlefield.

Searching for a person missing in the forest, for instance, several drones might have to fly their own search patterns, without hitting each other, using cameras and sensors capable of spotting human movement on the ground.

At a ribbon-cutting Thursday, Boeing showed off a four-wheel vehicle capable of moving sideways and spinning using a series of slanted rollers on its wheels. A small drone remained a couple of feet above it as the ground machine maneuvered around the floor.

The element of autonomy — operating without direct human guidance — will be “a key element of the vast majority of Boeing products going forward,” said Charles Toups, vice president for research and technology.

Boeing is making a “big bet” on autonomous technology, and it’s probably a good one, says Loren Thompson, defense analyst and chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute in Virginia.

There is a big future for it in warfare if Boeing can get autonomous aircraft and ground vehicles coordinated. “There will be some battles where there are no human casualties, because there are no humans involved,” he said.

Computer coordination will allow battles at a pace faster than human operators could deal with, he said.

Boeing is also developing an unmanned submarine that can be used to fix underwater pipelines and cables, and has military applications, too. It can stay at sea for months.

Autonomous technology may have a place in manufacturing as well as the plane, missile, bomb and space business where Boeing normally operates.

Nancy Pendleton, director of system technology, pointed to a small wheeled vehicle with a robot arm. Such devices might move themselves around a factory floor, doing jobs now done by humans.

The 8,100-square-foot CASL looks a little like a high school gym on the inside, with a big bay lit with infrared lights used to track the movement of the drones flying and rolling below. A tentlike annex provides the drones access to global positioning and other guidance systems that can’t be had indoors. A projection system simulates terrain for the drones’ detection systems.

The lab is on the Boeing complex where missiles and smart bomb kits are made. That plant will add a second shift next week to keep up with orders, said Elizabeth Kluba, vice president for weapons and missile systems.

Boeing employs about 15,000 people in the metro area, mainly in north St. Louis County and St. Charles. Boeing doesn’t release a St. Charles-only employment number.

Business Briefing e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.