BREAKING: Coast Guard Lays Out Plan to Expand Unmanned Systems Ops

By Stew Magnuson

Coast Guard photo

The Coast Guard — long seen as lagging behind the other armed services in the use of unmanned systems — has released a robotics roadmap that called for their increased use in a variety of missions.

Vice Adm. Peter Gautier, author of the document and deputy commandant for operations, acknowledged that the service not only needed to better employ robotic systems to carry out its varied missions, but it needs to defend its ships, aircraft and personnel against their use as offensive weapons.

“The Coast Guard will also move with purpose to defend against and regulate unmanned systems in the complex maritime environment,” Gautier wrote in the “Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan” introduction, which was dated March 2023, but only released publicly May 16.

The Coast Guard — compared to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps — has had scant employment of unmanned systems over the past 20 years. It has shared a Predator-class drone adapted for maritime use — the MQ-9 Guardian — with Customs and Border Protection since 2008, and flies the smaller, short-range ScanEagle drone off its National Security Cutters.

The Coast Guard has a plethora of missions where robotic systems and the sensors they carry can be of great use, including: search and rescue; stopping illegal fishing; drug and migrant interdiction; ice operations; and port and waterway security, the roadmap said.

Yet a chart portraying the history of the service’s experience with unmanned systems shows several experiments with aerial systems, but very little work with surface or subsurface systems and no counter-UAS technologies or ground systems efforts at all.

While a sea service, the plan indicated the Coast Guard is interested in ground robots to perform inspections aboard ships.

Nevertheless, experiments over the years have left the service in a good position to move forward, the plan said.

“The Coast Guard possesses a significant body of knowledge regarding advantageous employment and operation schemes, survivability of [unmanned systems] in extreme environmental conditions, adoption of relevant DoD technologies for non-combat missions, manned and unmanned teaming scenarios, and the benefits of force multiplication through strategic use,” the plan stated.

Unmanned systems are proliferating in the maritime environment, the roadmap noted. Hobbyists using off-the-shelf drones have disrupted Coast Guard operations, rival nations employ them as weapons, and smugglers use them to move drugs, it added.

The Coast Guard will “move with purpose to defend against and regulate unmanned systems in the complex maritime environment. We will employ counter-[unmanned systems] capability appropriate to the Coast Guard’s maritime security role across all domains,” the document said.

Along with boosting its defenses against robotic systems, the Coast Guard intends to shore up its own capabilities, the roadmap said.

The plan calls for the service to align its research and development and acquisition funding and use a “test small, learn and scale smart” approach.

It will leverage partnerships with other Department of Homeland Security agencies and the Defense Department to ensure interoperability and create efficiencies.

It will develop its own policies, doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures and determine the best way to conduct manned-unmanned teaming.

In order to employ unmanned systems in their missions, the Coast Guard must further develop its tactical network to transfer data back to command centers, employ data management, machine learning and artificial intelligence to automatically spot threats or anomalies and alert operators and bolster the enterprise’s command and control of the unmanned assets, the roadmap said.

A graphic in the report portraying how the service would ultimately like to employ unmanned systems showed a seamless network linking space, ground and sea-based communications to sensors aboard manned and unmanned air, surface, subsurface and space-based platforms — and leverage Defense Department networks and sensors to expand its capabilities.

The document did not, however, list the types and classes of unmanned systems or a timeline for which it wanted to acquire the technology.

It did state that for near-term capabilities it would acquire off-the-shelf systems that are mature and ready to be fielded.

“While the key to Coast Guard success has always been our people, [unmanned systems] offer the prospect of improving the performance and efficiency of our workforce and acting as a true force multiplier,” Gautier wrote.


Topics: Maritime Security, Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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