PACIFIC OCEAN– Crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton embarked off the California coast, Aug. 8, 2012, on a two-week deployment to demonstrate the ScanEagle Unmanned Aircraft System’s (UAS) potential to provide the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters (NSC) with a persistent and efficient surveillance tool.
The ScanEagle is already being used as a land-based launch and recovery system by the Marine Corps and has also been deployed on sea-going missions with the Navy.
“Many of our sister military services are already employing UAS,.” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vajda, the UAS platform manager. “We look at this in the Coast Guard as a future capability, but it is a reality today.”
The Stratton, a 418-foot NSC homeported in Alameda, Calif., was designed to deploy with UAS capabilities. However, the Coast Guard has yet to decide upon a permanent cutter-based UAS for the NSC fleet.
The primary goal of this deployment was for the crew of the Stratton, along with a 17-member UAS demonstration team, comprised of personnel from Coast Guard Headquarters, the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in New London, Conn., Naval Air Systems Command, Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Dahlgren, Va., and Insitu, Inc., to demonstrate the ScanEagle’s ability to operate from the NSC. Operators needed to safely launch, fly, transmit real-time data and imagery and then recover the UAS aboard the ship.
The ScanEagle used in this demonstration was outfitted with an Automatic Identification System receiver, an electro-optical camera for daytime operations and an infrared camera for nighttime operations, enabling the system to expand the NSC’s effective surveillance horizon. The four-foot fuselage houses these payloads, along with the engine, avionics, and GPS receiver. “The aircraft weighs about 45 pounds fully fueled and has a 10-foot wingspan,” said Cyrus Roohi, an unmanned systems test engineer for NSWC. “It has a 100-kilometer range with 20-30 hour aloft time.”
After Stratton steamed past the Golden Gate Bridge, the NSWC team began assembling the ScanEagle’s catapult launcher and “SkyHook” recovery system on the cutter’s flight deck.
The team was ready to launch the ScanEagle on the first UAS mission from a NSC. After warming up the ScanEagle and conducting several system checks, an engineer from the RDC pulled the launch ripcord. The UAS blasted from the pneumatically-operated catapult and whirred from the flight deck. The UAS team immediately began examining all aspects of the system—including flight characteristics, fuel consumption, and payload effectiveness. Input from all members, including ship’s company, was extremely useful.
“The ship’s crew provided tremendous value in terms of input,” said William Posage, the UAS project manager for the RDC. “Not only on how to operate, but how to integrate the UAS system into day-to-day operations.”
After several hours in the air, the ScanEagle was ready for recovery. The hydraulically-operated SkyHook system hoisted a taut line in between two large crane-like booms, forming a large letter “D.”
The ScanEagle conducted two passes to ensure the GPS guidance system navigated correctly to the recovery line, and then made the final approach. The ScanEagle neatly snagged the line with a clip on its wingtip, and an inertial switch automatically turned the engine off. NSWC crews lowered the ScanEagle from the SkyHook, and a team member carried it away to be refueled and inspected. The first flight was a clear success.
Over the next week, the teams conducted several more successful flights, executing various mission scenarios. “There are very common elements that go across all missions,” said Posage. “One of the biggest elements for the UAS is to help the ship’s crew find potential targets. The UAS extends the eyes of the ship well beyond the horizon—that’s only one benefit of having it onboard.”
Although the Coast Guard is assessing the benefits of this specific model, the ScanEagle may not be the exact unmanned aerial system the Coast Guard acquires. “This is a surrogate system and our approach to UAS is ‘crawl, walk, run,’” explained Posage. “We’ll start off with a simple, low risk system to get the initial flight deck and aviation facility certifications, conduct flight operations and use that to build more elaborate systems.”
The RDC is evaluating the system, including costs to acquire, maintain and operate, and balance it with mission effectiveness. “The RDC finds new technologies to help conduct our missions more efficiently and effectively,” said Posage. “By doing experimentation with the UAS onboard the ship, we are figuring out how UAS can fit into Coast Guard daily operations and its utility toward mission performance.”
The UAS team conducted dozens of successful flights, collected data and evaluated the UAS extensively throughout this deployment. Now, with a greater understanding of the basic mechanics, procedures and requirements to install and deploy these systems, they are aggressively preparing to assess UAS capabilities in a real operational scenario next year.
For more information on the Coast Guard’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) efforts, please visit http://www.uscg.mil/acquisition/uas.