Following several demonstrations of a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) aboard two National Security Cutters (NSC) and from shore, the Coast Guard on Tuesday said it is moving forward to the acquisition phase for an unmanned system.

The Coast Guard’s acquisition office said the sUAS program for the NSC in August 2013 was designated a non-major acquisition and transitioned to the “analyze and select phase.” In October the service issued a Request for Information (RFI) to gather feedback to help it put together a Request for Proposals for an sUAS as an interim capability until it develops a longer term solution (Defense Daily, Oct. 18, 2013).

ScanEagle UAS recovered by "SkyHook" following seven-hour sortie at Wallops Island in February. Photo: Coast Guard
ScanEagle UAS recovered by “SkyHook” following seven-hour sortie at Wallops Island in February. Photo: Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is pursuing acquisition of UAS systems to close gaps in its maritime air surveillance missions, and in particular provide the NSC with a persistent air surveillance capability. The unmanned aircraft could be used in conjunction with manned helicopter flights from the same NSC vessels.

Coast Guard UAS Project Manager Steve Kellogg said in a statement that the next phase of the acquisition is to identify alternatives leading to the purchase of an initial system for testing.

The service plans to procure nine sUAS systems, which includes one for each planned NSC and one for the shore-side support center, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vajda, sUAS sponsor representative, said in a statement. Each system includes an aircraft, ground control station (GCS), launch and recovery equipment, associated link equipment and a support kit. The Coast Guard also said it is conducting cost and performance tradeoffs of having one versus two aircraft per system.

Key requirements of the sUAS include commonality with other UAS systems operated by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, remain aloft for at least 12 hours, payload consisting of an electro-optic video sensor, infrared moving sensor, aeronautical transponder, VHF/UHF communications relay, non-visible infrared marker, a 50 percent growth margin, and operated by a single pilot seated at a single person GCS.

In 2012 and 2013 the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) evaluated Boeing’s [BA] ScanEagle UAS aboard its Bertholf and Stratton NSCs. In February the RDC completed its demonstrations of the ScanEagle at NASA’s Wallops Island, Va., facility near the Chesapeake Bay.

The initial demonstration aboard the Bertholf “really showed how little of an impact the operation of the sUAS system had on the other work the crew had to do on the ship,” Cmdr. Al Antaran, aviation domain lead with the Office of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation, said in a statement. The evaluation at Wallops Island explored physical configuration constraints and operational effectiveness in a maritime environment under a range of operational scenarios without having to worry about interfering with routine missions of an NSC.

The latest demonstration also showed the value of a sUAS versus a manned helicopter.

“With a helicopter, you are using hundreds and hundreds of gallons of fuel,” Vajda said, while the ScanEagle only needs a gallon for a 12-hour flight. “Unmanned flight really cuts to the heart of the issue. It is imperative that we provide air surveillance, but it should be accomplished at minimal impact on the NSC crew. That is impossible to do with a manned aircraft.”

He also said that the demonstration evaluated an auto detection capability for the surveillance video provided by the ScanEagle that alerts the crew when an anomaly is seen. Sentient provided the auto detect capability and the cameras were provided by Boeing’s Insitu unit, which makes the ScanEagle. The imaging equipment included the MWIR3, which has electro-optical and infrared cameras, and the EO900 and EO700 electro-optical cameras.

The demonstration included stationary and moving targets using different payload configurations. The Coast Guard said rain, a low cloud ceiling and wind all restricted the sUAS’ functionality.

While the demonstrations were performed using a ScanEagle, the Coast Guard is not beholden to that system to meet its requirements for an sUAS.

The RDC expects to deliver a final report on all three demonstrations to the Assistant Commandant for Capability, which is the project sponsor, in August.