Gary Dehnel, who leads the Coast Guard’s unmanned aerial systems acquisition program, had to remind attendees at the service’s recent innovation expo that his office still exists.
“We did not terminate the land- or cutter-based UAS programs,” he noted after recounting the long, tortuous history of the service’s so far fruitless efforts to acquire its own remotely piloted aircraft.
The case for having long-endurance, over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities was made in the early years of the Deepwater modernization program. A conventional helicopter can cover about 9,000 nautical square miles during a mission as opposed to a vertical take-off and landing UAS, which could extend that to 56,000 nautical square miles and do so at a much lower operating cost.
The Eagle Eye vertical take-off and landing aircraft was in an advanced stage of development when that program was terminated in 2007 because of technical and budgetary concerns. Since then, the Coast Guard has been left without acquisition funds to procure alternate aircraft. It has eyed the Navy’s FireScout VTOL program, but officials at the expo reported no progress on that front.
A stopgap measure for a much smaller UAV is in the works, though.
The Coast Guard will test a small fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle that the Navy has used for the past six years to fly off its new National Security Cutters.
Bill Posage, who leads the service’s unmanned systems program at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center, said tests may begin from March to June 2012. The center will use R&D funds to test fly a ScanEagle UAS. The trials will inform the Coast Guard whether a small aircraft is feasible. If the program proceeds, the ultimate aircraft chosen may or may not be the ScanEagle, he said.
Among the questions the center will investigate are: how it will be used, where from the ship will it be launched and how it will fit in with other sensor systems, Posage said.
Dehnel has requested funding for one small shipboard remotely piloted aircraft system to carry out further operational tests in the 2014 fiscal year budget. He projects outfitting two NSCs each year after that with the interim aircraft.
The service has also not forgotten its original plans to have a dedicated land-based fixed-wing UAS it can fly from air stations, Dehnel said.
The Coast Guard is in a joint program with Customs and Border Protection that flies a Predator-based medium-altitude, long-endurance drone called the Guardian on drug and human smuggling interception missions in the Caribbean. Coast Guard personnel have trained to be pilots and payload operators in the program.
But the Coast Guard has other missions that don’t align with CBP’s such as fishery management and pollution control. It also operates in regions where Customs doesn’t fly, he noted.
The Department of Homeland Security is poised to approve a draft endorsement of a mission needs statement for a land-based UAs, and the Coast Guard is working on concepts of operations documents, he said.