On May 3, U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and congressional stakeholders gathered in Dahlgren, Va., to watch a fixed-wing aircraft take off without a pilot. The launch kicked off a technology demonstration phase for the ScanEagle small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS), which is scheduled to undergo more extensive demonstration this summer on one of the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters (NSC).
Along the Potomac River at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), Navy engineers launched the 40-pound, 10-foot-wingspan ScanEagle unmanned aircraft system for a simulated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. Using the ScanEagle’s video camera, the ScanEagle pilot could see that bales were being transferred to another vessel. The ScanEagle pilot passed this information, including a detailed description of both boats, to a nearby Coast Guard 25-foot Response Boat-Small. After completing the simulated mission, the ScanEagle was recovered at the launch site with the SkyHook retrieval system that will be placed on the NSC.
“The demonstration proved our capability to remotely engage hostile threats from a Coast Guard cutter with unmanned systems and persistent surveillance,” said Navy Capt. Michael Smith, NSWCDD’s commander. “This unmanned aerial will greatly impact the Coast Guard’s most challenging maritime security, law enforcement and national defense missions.”
A cutter-based UAS would provide on-demand tactical surveillance and detection capability for the NSC and future Offshore Patrol Cutters. A congressionally directed study completed in 2010 by the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center (RDC) in New London, Conn., found that cutter-based UAS with appropriate sensors would significantly enhance NSC operational effectiveness. A UAS consists of an unmanned aircraft system, its mission payloads and ground support equipment.
Pleased with the event’s outcome, which took many hours of preparation, Capt. Alan Arsenault, the RDC’s commanding officer, is now looking ahead to this summer’s in-depth demonstration.
“Although we are looking at the small UAS as an interim solution to a larger airframe with more sensor capability, the ScanEagle UAS testing from an NSC this summer will help us build the concept of operations and the tactics, techniques and procedures for future UAS operations,” Arsenault said. “The small UAS could also be a game-changer because it is simple, has great flight endurance and comes at the right price, which makes it a good fit for the Coast Guard.”
Besides expediting the use of unmanned systems on Coast Guard cutters, pursuing sUAS in a partnership with NSWCDD greatly reduces cost, schedule and performance risks.
“Dahlgren personnel have a longstanding contractual relationship with Insitu Group, who developed the ScanEagle,” Arsenault said. “The NSWCDD has provided us with everything needed to perform the underway testing this summer. This includes the airframes, launch and recovery equipment; command-and-control equipment, UAS pilots; and subject matter experts.”
A team of four NSWCDD engineers and two Insitu employees are scheduled to deploy for approximately two weeks aboard an NSC equipped with ScanEagle.
ScanEagle is integrated with aircraft control communications, a day optical or night infrared camera and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver to provide an effective operational picture. It has a 4-foot fuselage that houses the engine, avionics, GPS and a fully directional video camera. ScanEagle can provide over 15 hours of continuous day or night surveillance and is capable of a maximum altitude of 19,500 feet.
While the sUAS is currently in a technology demonstration phase being overseen by the RDC, Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Capability Rear Adm. Mark Butt, who also attended the May 3 event, has an eye toward what the cost-effective capability of an sUAS like the ScanEagle could provide the service.
“If we can solve the airspace issues, it looks like a really interesting way to improve some capability at a good price,” Butt said. “They have discussed its uses on the high seas, but it could also work well in a port setting.”
For more information: Unmanned Aircraft System project page