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Originally published October 9, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified October 9, 2010 at 10:31 PM

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Sunday Buzz

Drone boat for military to be built in Bothell factory

The company testing the Piranha, an unmanned surface vessel (USV) now conducting sea trials on Puget Sound, will manufacture the advanced-materials boat in Bothell.

Sailors take note: That fast-moving, gray and black object crisscrossing Puget Sound near Everett is not an orca, it's a Piranha.

As in Piranha USV, a 54-foot-long prototype of an unmanned surface vessel (USV) that began its sea trials this past week.

It's made of carbon-fiber composites like the 787 Dreamliner, but with an extra ingredient — nanotube molecules that add strength and stiffness, according to developer Zyvex Technologies of Ohio.

Unlike the Dreamliner, the Piranha will be manufactured locally. Zyvex has leased space in Bothell where it will have 20 employees by year-end and perhaps double that in 2011, building the two sections that are assembled to make the vessel, says President Lance Criscuolo.

Company officials won't disclose the two defense contractors who've agreed to buy initial Piranha units. Criscuolo says naval agencies from elsewhere are also interested.

"We have customers from all over the world flying in over the next 30 days to see how it does," he says.

Lightweight drones, known in defense circles as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, have quickly become a crucial element of the Pentagon's arsenal in Iraq, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and elsewhere. Zyvex and others say waterborne drones could also have important military roles.

"The Navy has become very, very interested in this whole area," says Daniel Goure, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. It's "looking to create a whole world of unmanned vehicles" on, below and above the water, for missions that include observation, logistics and defensive or offensive operations, he said.

Right now, Goure said, "there is almost nothing out there in the way of USVs," but that could change quickly. "Go back 10 years and the UAV market was zilch — it's gone to 10,000 in a decade."

Zyvex artwork shows the Piranha firing missiles and dropping by parachute from a cargo plane. Goure says it could also be deployed from the Littoral Combat Ship, a new Navy concept aimed at responding to terrorism, piracy and other threats in coastal waters.

The company has its R&D facilities and headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, but Criscuolo says the Piranha was designed in the Seattle area.

Manufacturing will be done here because proximity to an ocean port was important and because of the growing local expertise in working with composites, at Boeing, boatbuilders and other manufacturers.

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The Piranha weighs 5 tons with engine and transmission, says Criscuolo, and it can carry 7 ½ tons of payload and fuel.

The company expects it to cruise at 25 knots for 2,800 nautical miles, or speed for shorter distances at 45 knots.

The lightweight composite-fiber material is one reason for that kind of performance. The prototype "is the largest structure ever built from these enhanced materials — nanoreinforced carbon fiber," says Zyvex director of defense applications Michael Nemeth.

Nanotubes are long, artificial molecules of carbon atoms whose pipelike structure makes them extremely strong but flexible. Zyvvex embeds them in its composite material, which is also used in sails, hockey sticks, baseball bats and something secret that Lockheed builds.

Some USV efforts are based on standard manned vessels. The result, Nemeth says, is "they are too heavy, they don't go far enough, they don't go fast enough."

But the Piranha is designed to operate without a crew. Of course, that has its own consequences: "It's not a comfortable ride for a person — there's no bathroom onboard or anything."

For military uses, Zyvex will deliver its vessels to defense contractors who install the remote-control systems and other equipment. Nemeth says the vessel is expected to cost between $2 million and $3 million.

Criscuolo says the company is also close to signing a contract to build yacht-tending dinghies from its composite material. Nemeth, whose background is in the helicopter field, says the USVs could also be used to deliver supplies to oil platforms and other hard-to-reach sites.

The local sea trials, which were first reported on the sailing blog Three Sheets Northwest, may last through next month.

Another note to sailors: During those trials, there will be a human aboard.

Fawning author now

fuming over McNerney

The author of an adulatory 2008 book about Boeing Chairman and CEO James McNerney has revised his views and called for the board to throw McNerney out.

But it's a close call whether the switcheroo reflects more poorly on the Boeing chief or on management consultant Peter Cohan. He published "You Can't Order Change: Lessons from Jim McNerney's Turnround at Boeing" a scant three years into the McNerney era.

Cohan wrote in '08 that McNerney "is a very smart leader: He's smart about motivating people, crafting business strategies that spark profitable growth; making operations more efficient and effective; and creating harmony within communities."

The book gives no indication that Cohan personally interviewed McNerney, although he quotes many newspaper articles and speeches.

Nonetheless he distilled 11 lessons about the Boeing chairman's "leadership style and practices" and diagramed them into a flowchart labeled "The McNerney Way."

Cohan wrote that after early delays on the 787 Dreamliner, McNerney replaced Mike Bair with Pat Shanahan and "now spends enough time with people on the line that he knows when leaders are sharing problems with him and when they are not."

But since the latest delay for the 747-8 was announced Sept. 30, Cohan's broad brush is sweeping in the other direction. In a piece titled "Jim McNerney's time as Boeing's pilot is over," he wrote on the dailyfinance.com website:

"The problem is McNerney lacks a key skill that Boeing needs — the ability to manage a portfolio of complex engineering projects." His diagnosis continued: "My reading is that people down the line aren't giving bad news to McNerney because they fear it will cost them their jobs."

Searching for a new hero, Cohan urges the board to bring in former Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Alan Mulally.

Mulally, now CEO of Ford, "is a great problem solver," Cohan declares.

When previously at Boeing, Mulally "would invite people from all levels of the business to share information and work toward solutions that are in the best interest of Boeing."

Sounds a lot like Cohan's view of McNerney, before he turned from genius to goat.

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum:

rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8541.

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