A recent month-long Coast Guard evaluation of commercially available unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) off the Coast of Hawaii demonstrated the effectiveness of the technology as a force multiplier in helping to carry out maritime domain awareness (MDA) missions in remote ocean areas but further advances are necessary, the Coast Guard said on Monday.
The initial results from the evaluation showed that the USVs can provide “some level of daytime MDA” over an extended period but onboard artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities are necessary to speed data processing and limit data transfer to actionable information, the service said. The service also said that limiting data transfer to actionable information will save on the use of expensive bandwidth.
The types of missions that USVs with different sensors could perform in remote areas include combatting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, search and rescue, autonomous search patterns, surveillance and reconnaissance, screening vessel traffic, and a full-range of law enforcement operations.
The Coast Guard in early November concluded its evaluation of two commercially available USVs, Saildrone’s wind-powered Saildrone and Spatial Integration Systems’ diesel/solar-powered Watcher cutter boat, which both had strengths and weaknesses.
“This evaluation showed that using autonomous USVs for future persistent MDA efforts will likely require a layered solution,” Scot Tripp, project manager with the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center (RDC), said in a statement. “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. 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.”
The USVs proved they can detect vessels more than a mile away and in certain situations beyond four miles.
The Coast Guard used contractor-owned and operated business models with the Saildrone and Watcher vessels. The Research and Development Center also added its own USV to the mix, a 29-foot craft based on its Response Boat-Small II.
The 29RDC was operated by junior enlisted boat drivers to senior officers who interactively planned and executed their own missions in real-time. The Coast Guard USV was also operated by RDC watchstanders in New London, Conn., demonstrating control of the vessel from 5,000 miles away using cellular service.
The demonstration was conducted about the same time the National Academies of Sciences issued a report saying the Coast Guard needs to be more aggressive in examining and adopting unmanned systems to help fulfill its missions. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, based on the report, has directed his operational directorate to lean-in in on potential uses of unmanned systems technologies.
The service is currently equipping all of its National Security Cutters with drones that can remain aloft for 12 hours at a time, helping the ships extend their surveillance capabilities and save the use of onboard helicopters for when they are absolutely needed.
The results of the USV study will also help inform policy decisions related to the increasing use of the vessels in the marine environment.