HAMPTON, VA—Huntington Ingalls Industries plans to build undersea drones at a facility here, anticipating greater demand for the unmanned submarines by the Navy.

Huntington Ingalls, known for building aircraft carriers, submarines and other ships, is venturing into relatively new territory by expanding work on unmanned systems. The company acquired unmanned systems developers in recent years and is producing small to medium-sized drones, according to Andy Green, executive vice president at Huntington Ingalls. That’s already made the company a leading builder of undersea drones, but the Hampton facility will be a significant expansion.

Once the new facility is complete, Huntington Ingalls can build large drones about 30 feet long. Green said the facility will manufacture and assemble parts for Boeing, which is constructing ORCA XLUUV unmanned submarines for the Navy and could contribute to submarines up to 85 feet long.

“The Navy has a very high interest in unmanned vehicles,” Green says. “In order to fill that need, we really need to expand capacity to build those vehicles.”

In a recent speech delivered to the RAND Corporation think tank, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he expected “unmanned systems (to) perform a variety of warfighting functions, from delivering lethal fires and laying mines, to conducting resupply or surveilling the enemy.” Green said the military and developers are still thinking of all the applications for unmanned submarines.

The facility in Hampton will consist of two buildings totaling about 150,000 square feet. Green said the company is investing about $50 million in the site and creating 250 jobs. The first phase of construction will build a 20,000-square-foot building for basic assembly and will be complete by the end of 2020. The 130,000-square-foot second building will be done around the end of 2021. Green said work done there would include machining, welding and building components for the larger unmanned systems.

Green said the facility would benefit from its proximity to the Navy, a skilled workforce in Hampton Roads and Newport News Shipbuilding and its thousands of engineers. Even though the Hampton facility will be building unmanned systems, there’s plenty of experience building submarines and undersea vehicles at the shipyard, he said.

Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck said the city was a fitting location for the facility, providing proximity to other science and defense institutions, such as NASA Langley Research Center, the National Institute of Aerospace and Joint Base Langley–Eustis. He said the facility will help keep Hampton on the forefront of drone development and aerospace research.