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Coast Guard wading into drone game

When it comes to drones, the Navy has FireScout, the Air Force has GlobalHawk, the Army has I GNAT ER, the Marine Corps has the Shadow and the Coast Guard has … well, nothing in use yet.

However, that maritime service — the only military branch with law enforcement capabilities — is testing several subsurface, surface and aerial unmanned systems, with plans to roll them out in the next few years.

“We have a few projects at [the Research & Development Center] now that address that very issue,” said Lt. Keely Higbie, public affairs officer at the USCG Research & Development Center (RDC).

“Specifically, we’re looking into how we apply unmanned systems currently available on the market and the sensors, payloads and autonomous activity they can do, and how they relate to Coast Guard mission sets where maybe instead of having sailors do dull, dirty or dangerous jobs, we want to use unmanned systems instead.”

Mark VanHaverbeke, a research engineer at the RDC, said for waterborne systems -- either surface or underwater -- the Coast Guard has identified three sensors that would provide the most benefit to the Coast Guard, and is now trying to work through the data problem.

“We’ve come to realize three primary sensors the Coast Guard might use — radar, sonar and electro-optical infrared,” VanHaverbeke said. “All three tend to be very data-dense in terms of the information they capture, which make them useful, unfortunately almost only in line-of-sight unless you have a data processor on board the vehicle.”

The systems would be used most often on missions that require the sensor be sent beyond line-of-sight — such as sending an autonomous system underwater to measure buoy changes and conditions, and determine when replacements are needed, instead of sending a 225-foot boat with personnel out to crane the buoy up on a dock to measure it — which puts the Coast Guard in a waiting game.

VanHaverbeke said the Coast Guard is in a “monitoring phase,” opting to see what data-link solutions that academia and the Department of Defense are able to concoct, and when the connectors reach an appropriate level of maturity, investigate Coast Guard-specific cases.

As for what the platforms hosting these sensors might look like, VanHaverbeke said the service is investigating three options: something resembling a boat, the floating paddleboard-like Waveglider from Liquid Robotics and autonomous underwater vehicles. All three are capable of carrying sensors, so using one over another would depend on which sensor is used and what the mission is.

On the aviation side, Bill Posage, the aviation branch chief at RDC, said the Coast Guard has been investigating these tools for quite some time, and recently conducted shipboard testing of small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) such as the ScanEagle on Coast Guard cutters Stratton and Bertholf, as well as the larger FireScout, in partnership with NAVAIR off Los Angeles.

Examples of uses for the small and large UAS are monitoring alien migration operations and drug smuggling, which the Coast Guard is tasked with monitoring and interdicting, or determining the density of a chemical plume in an explosion.

The problem from the Coast Guard’s perspective is that most of its boats and cutters are much smaller than Navy ships and don’t have flight decks, which can make launching and landing unmanned systems tricky. For this reason, they’re also investigating the use of a micro UAS.

“A lot of our surface vessels, boats, small cutters and such are not flight-deck equipped, so we’re also looking at very small unmanned aerial systems that are hand-launched and suitable for the maritime environments to provide aviation support to smaller non-flight-deck ships,” Posage said.

This work is part of the Robotic Aircraft for Maritime Public Safety project, a joint endeavor with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology branch, and the Borders and Maritime Security division.

RAMPS started two years ago, and tests commercial products to develop requirements and standards for maritime-specific needs.

Posage said the Coast Guard will continue testing these micro hand-launched aircraft for two to three years, with implementation in maybe five years.

Small unmanned air systems are closer to integration, because the service initiated a non-major acquisition for the National Security Cutter. Posage estimated these systems would start entering the fleet in two or three years.

The water-based systems don’t yet have an onboarding schedule, VanHaverbeke said, because the technology hasn’t fully gelled to allow the platforms to carry sensors where they’re needed and relay the data to shore.

The challenges on the aerial side, Posage said, are twofold: funding and access to air space, as the Coast Guard has the same restrictions flying under FAA guidelines as everyone else.

They are, however, able to take advantage of special naval air space near Wallops Island off Virginia, and Point Mugu in Ventura County.

Higbie said the RDC has brought several unmanned systems — both air and water — to the Arctic in the past few years to test their integration and functionality, and the crews using them had positive feedback. VanHaverbeke said he’s had the same experience.

“Anecdotally, crews want to keep them,” he said. “They don’t want to see them go; they like having them, and see great benefit and advantages to having these systems on board.”

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