Shortly after Hurricane Ida tore through Louisiana at the end of August, the Coast Guard’s Gulf Strike Team in Mobile, Ala., got a call. Trouble spots had been identified, including sunken vessels, potential pollution, and other waterway hazards. Could the team deploy a pilot to assess the damage?
Petty Officer 2nd Class Dylan Zechman responded, bringing along one of the Coast Guard’s short-range unmanned aircraft systems (SR-UAS) – essentially a handheld drone. Using satellite imagery gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he launched the small portable aircraft over target areas deemed potentially hazardous, capturing photos and data that would be sent back to incident command to help prioritize recovery efforts.
“It’s a great tool,” said Zechman, who estimates that he and a pilot from the Atlantic Strike Team each averaged three or four flights a day during the three-week mission. “We were even able to spot a broken off boom from a crane barge underwater, where there was hull damage to the barge and the diesel tanks on board were leaking into the water.”
Zechman’s deployment is just one way the Coast Guard is increasing its use of drones after hurricanes and severe weather events. In addition to using UAS for routine inspections, the service’s civil engineering units have also brought in drones to identify storm damage in and around Coast Guard and strategic coastal facilities.
While airplane surveillance and helicopter rescues may be more visible, a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft is frequently taking the lead in post-storm damage assessment and cleanup. And they’re not only doing it more safely, but usually at a fraction of the cost. The battery-powered drone Zechman pilots, for example, costs about $1,800 to buy compared to the $7,000 or more per hour it takes to operate a helicopter says Chief Petty Officer Toni Warnock, the Coast Guard’s Short Range UAS subject matter expert and fleet training manager. “We’ve utilized SR-UAS following every major tropical event since 2018,” he added. “The return on investment has been phenomenal.”
The Coast Guard has a variety of drones at its disposal, both cutter-based and on land.
At the top end, the Coast Guard uses the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator in partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to conduct surveillance for drug interdiction, migrant traffic, and other nefarious activities along the southern borders. These long- range drones, which are land-based, weigh in at 10,500 pounds and can travel at speeds of up to 276 mph.
In addition, National Security Cutters have medium range UAS capability with the Insitu Scan Eagle and their launching systems on board. These fuel-powered drones have a wingspan of more than eight feet and can remain aloft for 10 hours, traveling at speeds up to 96 miles per hour. Some of them have supported hurricane relief efforts and made damage assessments in the past, including during Hurricane Dorian but they’re primarily used for surveillance at sea, particularly for drug interdictions. No cutter-based drones were deployed for Ida.
The short-range UAS, on the other hand, are quite small and portable. A service member who has been certified as a remote pilot can easily carry, launch, and retrieve one of these multi-rotor aircraft from almost any location. Once in flight, these battery-powered drones by regulation must be kept in sight by the pilot and visual observer. But they are capable of flying one and a half to three miles from the pilot and up to 400 feet in altitude for a duration of approximately 20 minutes. Coast Guard UAS teams are equipped with multiple battery packs per system, so these drones can land, swap batteries, and be back airborne in just minutes vs. waiting 45 minutes for the battery to recharge.
The Coast Guard first began using these short-range drones in mid 2018 as part of the Group 1 UAS Prototype Program Initiative (GUPPI). The initial program included seven Coast Guard units and 14 short range systems. Today it has 32 units strategically located around the U.S., with more than 70 systems and 150 certified UAS pilots. Pilots are required to have an FAA Part 107 license (the Coast Guard covers the testing) and complete a three-day ground and flight training course with one of the instructors. But all units and rates will be considered, according to Lt. Cmdr. Dominic Bucciarelli, program manager for the short range UAS. “We have non-rates to senior officers flying these systems,” he said.
In just three years, the short-range drones the Coast Guard uses have demonstrated several operational advantages over traditional methods of surveillance or damage assessment following a hurricane.
Improving Response Operations
A short- range drone packs a lot of capability into a small space. This includes a high-quality camera that collects still and video images “far superior to other sources, including manned aircraft and satellite,” according to the GUPPI report. This has made them invaluable for assessing damage to exact measurements and helping locate pollution or chemical spills. “They can literally capture images not visible to the naked eye,” said Warnock, noting that UAS infrared cameras can detect heat signatures. During Hurricane Dorian, for example, Coast Guard drones were able to identify areas of pollution that were not visible from the ground and most likely would have been missed had drones not been used.
Improving Safety for our Operators
Drones can be used to inspect a variety of sites and do it safer. They often eliminate the need to send manned Coast Guard aircraft and crews up in precarious weather for missions outside of search and rescue. After Hurricane Ida, the Coast Guard’s Civil Engineering Unit used drones to assess damage in and around service facilities. Due to image quality and the accuracy of GPS, software can be used to extract exact measurements from the imagery to determine material needed for repairs. Before, the only way to do this was to have service members or contractors physically climb onto roofs and towers to measure the structures manually.
Aids to navigation (ATON) are the buoys and channel markers the shipping industry relies on to navigate in and out of ports. They often get dislodged during a storm surge, and cause delays or hazards in the global supply chain. Previously, the only way to address the issue was for Coast Guard ships known as “buoy tenders” to go from buoy to buoy to verify each was in its proper position relative to the channel. Now a pilot can quickly launch a short-range drone from an underway vessel and record the position of several buoys in one sortie. This enables the vessel to continue its patrol of the shipping channel, only stopping if the drone finds a buoy off station or damaged.
Despite the advantages UAS offer, they will never be able to replace manned assets completely. Drones can’t implement on scene decisions such as hoisting during a rescue mission, and even large logistics haulers will be hard to replace because of the nature of their missions. But using a UAS to bridge the gap is incredibly helpful – especially in search and rescue, Bucciarelli added.
“The search part is what wears down crews,” he said. “If (drones) can take that out of the equation and make it into a ‘point to point’ mission, we’ve increased our manned crews’ safety exponentially.”