Dec. 7, 2020 —
The 29RDC autonomous vessel underway during the Coast Guard’s unmanned surface vehicle demonstration Oct. 7 through Nov. 5 off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.
The Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) Nov. 5 concluded a month-long evaluation of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) to determine their ability to provide persistent maritime domain awareness (MDA) in remote areas of the ocean.
The focus of the evaluation was to explore how current and emerging technologies might support the Coast Guard’s many missions around the globe. The project showed that USVs with assorted sensor capabilities may be useful to complement organic Coast Guard aviation and surface assets in performing key operations in these regions, ranging from combatting illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing to conducting search and rescue and a full range of law enforcement missions.
Initial results revealed that commercially available USVs are capable of delivering some level of daytime MDA and can conduct 30-day endurance missions. Two USVs used for this evaluation – the wind-propulsion Saildrone and Watcher, a diesel/solar-powered cutter boat from Spatial Integration Systems – proved their capability to detect vessels in excess of a mile and in certain situations in excess of 4 miles.
This demonstration also highlighted the importance of developing and incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning into future USVs. The sensors used in this demonstration captured significant amounts of data. To speed processing and limit expensive bandwidth consumption, it is invaluable for the USV to conduct onboard processing to the greatest possible extent, limiting transmitted data to only that which is actionable to operators, according to Cmdr. Blair Sweigart, the RDC researcher who served as the demonstration director. He said this ability is critical to USVs’ success in long endurance and MDA missions.
“This evaluation showed that using autonomous USVs for future persistent MDA efforts will likely require a layered solution. USVs like Saildrone are capable of performing MDA missions for up to a year without maintenance, but their low transit speed does not allow them to pursue a target of opportunity to collect more information,” said RDC researcher Scot Tripp, who served as project manager. “In contrast, the Watcher is only capable of 30 days endurance but has the capability of traveling at speeds over 30 knots. It can also be instructed to pursue a target upon detection for better imagery. A system where these USVs worked together could prove to be a valuable tool for future MDA capabilities,” Tripp explained.
The Watcher (left) and Saildrone in the operation area. U.S. Coast Guard photos.
Two of the USVs used in this demonstration were contractor-owned/contractor-operated, which is only one of the potential procurement models available for these types of vessels. The type of vessel and how it is being used may best dictate which acquisition mode is most efficient, Tripp said. The Saildrone routinely operates on a service-provider model, for example, but government-owned/government-operated USVs might also be used effectively.
The RDC pursued the efficacy of a government-owned/government-operated USV with the 29RDC, a 29-foot autonomous vessel based on the Coast Guard response boat-small II. With the 29RDC, service operators from junior enlisted boat drivers to senior officers were able to interactively plan and execute their own missions in real time. Additionally, the 29RDC was operated by RDC watchstanders in New London, Connecticut, demonstrating the vessel’s ability to be controlled from 5,000 miles away utilizing cellular service. These demonstrations provided exceptional feedback regarding potential operations using USVs: in concert with cutters and other boats as a force multiplier; performance of reconnaissance missions; search and rescue augmentation through autonomously executed search patterns; and screening recreational and commercial vessel traffic.
This demonstration also reaffirmed a whole-of-government interest in enhancing MDA. Participants included U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Navy Research Laboratory, Office of Naval Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Scientific Advisors for the U.S. Navy, The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and Congressional staffers.
The Coast Guard is also interested in USV testing to help better inform policy decisions as these vehicles become more numerous in the marine environment.
This demonstration was part of the Coast Guard’s pilot study of low-cost commercially available technologies that can enhance maritime domain awareness in Pacific regions, with the primary focus of monitoring (IUU) fishing. A quick look report summarizing preliminary results from the demonstration can be found here. A full report is scheduled for completion mid-2021.
For more information: Research, Development, Test and Evaluation program page and Research and Development Center page.