The Coast Guard’s new Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan details initiatives and partnerships that will come together to chart the path forward for the use of air and sea drones to protect the country’s maritime borders.
Unmanned systems can continuously surveil known narcotics and migrant trafficking lanes with a low risk of detection, inspect vessel tanks and compartments that may pose hazards to human inspectors, survey the seafloor, shipping channel, and mooring areas for potential threats at ports and waterways, and much more.
“The Coast Guard will move with purpose to deploy, defend against, and regulate unmanned systems in the complex maritime environment,” Unmanned Systems Cross-Functional Team Lead Capt. Thom Remmers said in a message to the service Tuesday. “We are leaning forward to expand operations of UxS [unmanned systems] as an enabling capability within our force structure for all mission areas. UxS will provide persistent maritime domain awareness; optimize surveillance in order to predict, detect, deter, counter, and mitigate threats to the homeland and the maritime environment; and reduce the dull, dirty, dangerous, and distant demands on personnel, optimizing the employment of limited Coast Guard resources.”
“Embracing and integrating UxS will allow us to effectively safeguard the American people and promote maritime safety and security in a complex and evolving environment,” he added.
Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Peter Gautier signed the plan March 31. In a message at the outset of the plan, Gautier said the Coast Guard’s future is envisioned as “an interconnected spectrum of interoperable systems and enable effective integration of artificial intelligence to deliver actionable data to Coast Guard operators” in myriad situations.
The Coast Guard’s broad mission set — including intercepting IUU fishing that “has replaced piracy as one of the greatest global maritime threats,” stopping trafficking of drugs and migrants that “is moving farther offshore and persists as a threat to the public,” maintaining a presence in an increasingly busy Arctic, and responding to natural disasters — has highlighted the opportunities for unmanned systems to “unite people, assets, systems, and data in new ways to create a more agile force,” the strategy states, by improving situational awareness and augmenting crewed missions.
Unmanned systems are also “already being used by all types of actors in the maritime environment, and we should expect their presence to grow significantly” — from “curious citizens” and shipping companies to narcotics traffickers who have “built small, homemade unmanned submarines to covertly move drugs illegally across maritime borders.”
Along with deploying unmanned systems to improve mission execution, the strategy emphasizes the importance of USCG being prepared to defend against errant or nefarious unmanned systems by using counter systems. “The Coast Guard must establish and enforce a regulatory framework for the safe and lawful use of unmanned systems in the Marine Transportation System,” the strategy says.
To reach the service’s necessary state of capabilities, USCG said it will “build an efficient and agile requirements, procurement and acquisitions process with a focus on contracting services rather than buying systems” and “adopt a philosophy to collaborate, test small, learn, and scale smart.”
“An agile requirements and acquisitions program that supports both contracting services and acquiring systems, coupled with a sound testing and scaling program, will allow the Coast Guard to adopt, integrate, and employ technology at the pace of market maturity and ensure continued decision advantage in the maritime domain,” the strategy continues, adding that USCG will engage with other agencies, particularly the Defense Department, for expertise and solutions. Beyond vehicles and sensors, USCG also “must pursue complementary systems in coordination with UxS to ensure full integration into Coast Guard operations,” including tactical communications and network capabilities, data storage and management infrastructure, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and next-generation command-and-control and information dissemination platforms.
“Adoption of UxS will introduce transformational change within the Coast Guard force structure, requiring new personnel skills and training to augment the mix of manned assets,” states the strategy. “Further, we must modify policy, doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures to incorporate the use of UxS. We will identify those changes early and determine the best ways to integrate UxS for optimal manned-unmanned teaming.”
The strategy identifies key enablers — doctrine, organization, training, personnel, and facilities; interface requirements between UxS, communications platforms, data centers, analysis tools, and human operators; and automation and autonomy in engineering systems — to ensure unmanned systems can be “fully leveraged as a force multiplier.”
“Perhaps the greatest enabler will be to incorporate UxS into an operational data ecosystem that can fundamentally transform Coast Guard operations,” the strategy adds. “This ecosystem would capitalize on data as a strategic asset by connecting manned, unmanned, and fixed sensors, transferring and converting data into information and knowledge, and cueing decisions by human analysts and operators.” Interdependent components include tactical networks, data management, AI, and command and control as “ultimately the data ecosystem’s interface with human operators and decision makers will rely on effective command and control platforms enabling them to visualize the information, make timely decisions, and deploy manned or unmanned systems in response.”
The Coast Guard began its unmanned systems journey more than 15 years ago by establishing with U.S. Customs and Border Protection a Joint Program Office and launching operations of MQ-9 Guardians. Current USCG research, development, test, and evaluation projects include Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) UAS, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Flight Authorization, sensor fusion for collision avoidance on the surface, hull and infrastructure inspection underwater and detecting oil under ice, confined and hazardous space inspection, remotely operated brush cutting for inland rivers aids to navigation, and advanced system interoperability for cutter-based counter-UAS along with rapidly deployable counter systems for ports, waterways and coastal security.
A month ago, an unmanned L3 Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13 surface vessel from U.S. 5th Fleet transited the Strait of Hormuz from the Ararbian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman along with U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Charles Moulthrope and Cutter John Scheuerman “demonstrating the continued operational integration of unmanned and artificial intelligence systems by U.S. maritime forces in the Middle East,” the Navy said.
In January, the Coast Guard sought more information from industry on unmanned systems’ sensor technology, payload capabilities, and system performance characteristics, stating that USCG needed to keep pace with the “rapidly changing” advancements in UAS in order to meet evolving threats.
Remmers said that the strategic plan is “already moving forward” with the deployment of new unmanned surface vehicles in areas of illegal drug and migrant trafficking, along with “expanding existing capability by integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning with Scan Eagle UAS operating from WMSLs.”
“We continue to deploy Counter-UAS in support of National Special Security Events including last month’s Boston Marathon,” he said. “Finally, our Autonomous Vessel Policy Council is actively engaging with commercial operators and international rule-making bodies to define a future where UxS are a trusted part of daily operations in the marine transportation system.”