The Coast Guard would love to have unmanned vessels that skim the surface of the water, searching for smugglers on the run or vessels in distress, officials say.

But using drones to spot signs of trouble is proving to be no small challenge as sea conditions make it difficult to relay sensor data significant distances. The service can envision a potentially endless array of sensors that might prove valuable to the Coast Guard’s ISR mission, from ship identification tools to electronic navigation aids.

In the commercial world, analysts predict a rapid rise of autonomous busses and trucks in the coming years.

“Human errors cause more than 80% of the road fatalities; automated vehicles will help in curbing such fatalities significantly,” Technavio analysts wrote in a September 2017 report. They anticipate the market for autonomous vehicles will grow 38 percent by 2021.

As difficult as it may be to imagine a bus programmed to navigate rush-hour traffic, the Coast Guard equivalent – a self-directed vessel that would skim the waves searching for signs of trouble – may be even harder to achieve.

“We have been interested in unmanned surface assets to builds a link to other sensors that may be further rout to sea or restricted by line of sight limitations,” said Jason Story, a naval architect at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center. “If we could use a small unmanned surface vessel to extend our view, that is something we’d like to be able to achieve.”

Surface conditions at sea make it hard to broadcast a signal to relay sensor intelligence any distance. In Arctic trials earlier this year, a prototype unmanned vessel was able to project sensor data about four miles. That’s far short of the distance needed to make the unmanned vessel a practical extension of a Coast Guard cutter’s operational capabilities.

“That’s what I would call a limitation. It’s not a game killer, but it is something to be aware of,” said Scot T. Tripp, project manager at the R&D Center.

The Coast Guard was hoping to get a “live 360-degree situational awareness video back to the cutter to extend our view of the area,” Story said. “We were hoping to get dozens of miles out of it.”

That didn’t happen in the Arctic trials. Now, developers have now taken those findings back to the lab, where they continue to work on ways to expand the utility of their unmanned craft.

Rebuild and reconfigure

The service is doing most of the developmental work on a modular vessel known as the Unmanned Maritime System, and known informally as the Minion on account of its resemblance to the bright yellow characters in the Despicable Me movies. In addition to solar and battery power, the vessel contains a command and control module and a range of sensors including sonar and 360-degree camera.

“The idea is to have something that we can rebuild and reconfigure,” Story said.

Much of the work right now is focused on the C2 systems, which Story says may have been responsible for the vessel’s less-than-stellar performance in early trials.

“A lot of the command and control systems were off the shelf, standard frequencies, nothing militarized or encrypted,” he said. “Then we tried to integrate things like the mission planner and other more military systems to see how far we could make that work

“We’re still looking into it, but we think what fell apart was the integration between the cheaper off-the-shelf capabilities and the more military equipment,” he said. “The systems worked well but we couldn’t get them to talk together.”

Developers say it is likely that a more seamless interface between components could help to improve overall performance.

Drones for the dirtiest jobs

The service is eager to acquire an unmanned surface capability to tackle what Tripp describes as dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. Think about fisheries enforcement as an example.

Rather than have a cutter on scene all the time, “we could do all the initial surveillance remotely before we have to go in and arrest somebody,” he said. “We could use it for domain awareness. For instance, you could have detectors for oil and you could pick up an oil slick without having to be out there all the time.”

Even as it explores the ISR possibilities, the service also is examining policy questions around the future use of unmanned vessels, both its own and those in the hands of other operators.

“What are the rules of the road? What will we have to deal with when countries have unmanned container ships, unmanned port vessels, unmanned harbor vessels?” Tripp said. “All these unmanned vessels can save on crew costs but what are the operational rules? Normally you have to have watch-stander on the bridge at all times. That doesn’t work with unmanned vehicles, so how will that be handled?”