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Short-Range Drones for the Maritime Environment

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By U.S. Coast Guard News 2018-05-08 13:44:00

[By Loretta Haring]

The Coast Guard “sees a clear opportunity to perform many of its missions faster, cheaper and more safely through the use of short-range unmanned aircraft systems,” according to Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Lampe, short-range UAS platform manager in the service's Office of Aviation Forces. But exactly what are the risks, benefits and limitations of operating this technology in a maritime environment? The Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program has partnered with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate to get those answers.

Coast Guard personnel launch an AeroVironment drone called Puma All Environment from a response boat-medium during recent short-range unmanned aircraft system demonstrations at Singing River Island in Mississippi.

The Coast Guard Research and Development Center has been evaluating short-range, hand-launched UAS for several years under its Robotic Aircraft Sensor Program for the Maritime Environment (RASP-M). Researchers have evaluated short-range UAS in realistic maritime security, first responder and pollution response scenarios. The lessons learned are being used to develop concept of operations for Coast Guard-specific missions.

To aid DHS components in their quest to incorporate the usage of drones into their missions, DHS S&T officials established both land- and maritime-based evaluation and training sites for DHS components to use. S&T partnered with the Army National Guard to use Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for land-based demonstrations. A partnership was also established with Mississippi State University to gain exclusive access to Singing River Island for maritime evaluation of drones.

“Our partnership with the state of Mississippi has greatly increased our capability to perform the demonstrations and evaluations needed to move to using drones in our standard operations,” said Tim Bennett, S&T program manager of air-based technologies for land and maritime border security.

Maritime-based short-range UAS demonstrations were conducted recently at Singing River Island involving the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection’s Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It is critical that DHS USCG, CBP, ICE and S&T partner on our efforts to add drones to our tool set,” Bennett said. “It not only allows us to share ideas, experience and technology, it saves the taxpayers a significant amount of money by only having to do it once.”

A search and rescue scenario was demonstrated at Singing River Island: RDC evaluated the UAS’s ability to detect anchored rafts using a camera payload with an autonomous preset program.

“Typically, operators zoom in and out, looking here and there, and there is a chance something will be missed,” said Stephen Dunn, the research scientist who runs the Small UAS RASP-M at RDC, based in New London, Connecticut. “Coverage of the search area is 100 percent with an autonomous camera.”

Increasingly capable payloads such as multi-spectral and high-definition cameras and light detection and ranging technologies have been evaluated. These technologies may support future marine pollution missions. Research shows that a drone can get high above the area, providing responders a better view of the size and trajectory of an oil spill. Also, for law enforcement missions such as drug interdiction, the advanced UAS payloads can provide intelligence about numbers and weapons that can make boarding a vessel safer for Coast Guard personnel, as well as provide camera footage important for prosecution.

A recent Robotic Aircraft Sensor Program for the Maritime Environment demonstration at Singing River Island included evaluation of the AeroVironment Puma unmanned aircraft system (top) utilizing the Mantis i45 sensor suite (left), 24-mega pixel (middle) and light detection and ranging (right) payloads.

From an efficiency standpoint, utilizing short-range UAS can save money; using an airplane or helicopter to conduct post-natural disaster damage assessments can cost up to $11,000 an hour, for example.

The demonstrations at Singing River Island highlighted that evaluations must be completed in multiple geographical locations because “different sensors work differently in other environments,” Dunn said. RDC is teaming with the crews of Coast Guard Cutters Paul Clark, a fast response cutter based in Miami, Florida; Blackfin, an 87-foot patrol boat based in Santa Barbara, California; Cheyenne, a 75-foot river buoy tender based in St. Louis, Missouri; and Decisive, a medium endurance cutter based in Pensacola, Florida, to conduct additional evaluations; demonstrations in the Arctic are planned in July.

“The RASP-M project has the potential to offer a relatively low-cost UAS solution that can provide visual surveillance and inspection for use by a broad range of Coast Guard units, including patrol boat, buoy tenders, cutters and sectors,” said Scott Craig, Systems domain lead for the RDT&E Program.

Loretta Haring works with the Coast Guard's Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate.

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.