Coast Guard Demonstrates New Sensor Technologies
By Austin Wright
Coast Guard researchers have entered the final stages of a $5 million sonar project that has been in the works since just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The sensor, an 8-foot-long pole that can be mounted on small ships, shoots 16,000 sonar beams — 20 times per second — and instantly assembles the return soundings into a 3-D video image of the ocean floor. Coast Guard researchers are now testing the sensor, which they hope will boost search-and-rescue missions and help to track the approximately 22,000 underwater objects that the service monitors.
The Coast Guard showcased this and other technologies at an annual conference in November at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Many of the projects had a similar theme: seeing what the human eye cannot.
“The reality is that most of the waters we patrol — the large majority — are high-current waters with low visibility,” said Lt. Joseph Kusek, who manages several of the technology projects. “We have to make these products transportable, usable and intuitive.”
The sonar hangs from the side of a boat and sends its images to a computer monitor onboard. Operators can pause the video stream, and they can also zoom in. “For instance,” Kusek said, “you could look at a sunken boat and determine whether lifeboats had deployed.”
Another project that’s nearing completion, the small-boat camera, aims to provide a low-cost, 360-degree video stream of a boat’s above-water surroundings. Operators would be able to zoom in on — and identify — far-off ships.
A third system, the electro-optical/infrared sensor, which the Coast Guard has already started fielding, is being mounted on planes and helicopters. It uses thermal sensors to scan the surface for specific heat levels and could be used in search-and-rescue missions to locate victims floating in the ocean. The device also has a laser, a camera and other sensors that could be used to identify ships on the horizon.
To test the system, the Coast Guard developed a product called Thermal Oscar, which is a gel pack that simulates the heat signature of a human. The 120-pound dummy can stay in the water for up to six hours and maintain temperatures of 94 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit.
Service members also discussed a new cartridge that they hope will be used in automatic weapons carried by officers at small ports. The short-range bullet hits the ground after just 2,064 meters. “When you’re working in a small port and you have to shoot a round, there can be a lot of collateral damage,” said Brad Lacey, a chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard’s Office of Specialized Capabilities. “The bullet is as accurate as our current rounds.”
The bullet has striations on its tail that cause it to start wobbling — and then hit the ground — after about 2,000 meters. Lacey said the goal of the project, which has been under way for five years, is to design a bullet that’s resting on the ground at that distance.
“Until it’s perfect, we won’t field it,” he said.