Coast Guard Takes On Airborne Ship Surveillance
NEW ORLEANS — As part of a sweeping effort to beef-up maritime surveillance on U.S. shores, the Coast Guard for the first time plans to use airborne tracking devices to quickly relay information about approaching vessels to operators on the ground.
The Coast Guard has created the so-called airborne data communication system to give pilots an active role in vessel tracking, a mission that used to be dedicated to sea-and ground-based personnel.
Coast Guard aircraft have traditionally been used for search and rescue, law enforcement and drug interdiction. But since 9/11, the service has made it a priority to enhance surveillance at sea and on the ground, and now, in the air.
“As our missions evolved, there was more emphasis on airborne surveillance,” said Cmdr. Bob Feigenblatt, eNavigation branch chief at Coast Guard headquarters.
The tracking system is not yet operational, but Coast Guard officials hope to have a prototype ready for testing in summer 2008, said Feigenblatt.
The new airborne technology is housed inside a small device that resembles a black box, he says. Inside the box is an on board computer and modem that has a built in Global Positioning System. This can provide operators with blue force tracking to differentiate between friend or foe aircraft.
The airborne system will also include a laptop that is programmed with FalconView software, a Windows mapping system, to give operators situational awareness. The software provides a map overlay of the water below so a vessel can more easily be identified and reported to ground operators. FalconView also provides automated asset tracking, which gives ground operators the ability to pinpoint Coast Guard aircraft without the pilot having to call in his position.
The new communications program replaces an outdated satellite tracking system that used to give pilots some ability to track vessels if they weren’t busy conducting other missions. With the old technology, aircrews would have to manually write down the Global Positioning System coordinates of a ship and radio that information to the ground. But that system was too slow to be useful, said Chief Doug Witham, avionics sensor and program manager.
The new system allows pilots to relay information from the air to the ground in 57 seconds, Feigenblatt said, which reduces the cycle time by 98 percent.
The technology will at first be used on C-130 aircraft. Eventually, it will be installed on all Coast Guard fixed and rotary-wing airplanes, said Cmdr. Rick Christoffersen, in a presentation to the Coast Guard Innovation Expo here.
The program is funded at $2.7 million.
The airborne communication system first began in 2003 as a master’s degree project at the National Graduate School, said Christoffersen.
Project participants built a system prototype in 2004, after which the Coast Guard pursued its development. The service partnered with the Navy and Lockheed Martin technical services in 2007 to pay for the hardware and aircraft integration. The Coast Guard is working under an existing Navy aircraft hardware contract with Lockheed and did not give the company a separate award. The Navy is also interested in using this technology for its own aircraft, Feigenblatt said.