Small Coast Guard robot planes would be deployed for public-safety missions.
The Coast Guard wants to acquire small drones for spotting missing boaters and other distressed oceangoers. Hopefully, not cruise passengers catching some rays.
The small unmanned aircraft systems, or SUAS, would weigh at most 35 pounds, Coast Guard officials say. A new solicitation for demonstrations does not specify the length or width of the desired model, or privacy controls for that matter. The service has invited interested drone vendors to a to-be-determined test range for market research purposes.
The Coast Guard has been trying to build a drone fleet since 2002, but budget constraints and a delayed modernization project have hampered that goal.
Costs for the overhaul, formerly called Deepwater, are expected to increase by an additional $6 billion, according to government estimates. The Coast Guard currently borrows unmanned aircraft from the Navy and Customs and Border Protection, a sister component of the Department of Homeland Security.
But the new request for information states the Coast Guard "will conduct flight testing and evaluation of airborne sensors and SUAS platforms for potential transition to the Coast Guard operational units and its partners in maritime law enforcement.”
Coast Guard drones would cover between two to six nautical miles.
The testing range "will provide restricted airspace for unimpeded access for SUAS flight in addition to various environments for simulating realistic first responder, law enforcement and search and rescue scenarios in a maritime environment," the invitation states.
The Federal Aviation Administration limits the frequency and span of drone flights in this country, for safety and civil liberties purposes.
The government's increasing use of drones in the United States has heightened domestic surveillance concerns. In 2014 funding legislation, Congress required federal auditors to assess CBP's compliance with privacy laws and included stipulations to limit flights to U.S. borders and coasts.
An assessment released last week by the Government Accountability Office found the agency abides by all laws, although they don’t confine the agency's drones to the nation’s perimeter.
About 20 percent of the time, flights occupied airspace away from the border, GAO reported. Border patrol drones detect illegal cross-border activity and support other agencies at all levels of government, including the Coast Guard and local police forces.
Contractors interested in the Coast Guard drone trials will be granted five practice days at Webster Field in St Inigoes, Maryland. The “robotic aircraft for maritime public safety,” dubbed RAMPS, will be launched by bungee cord, catapult or by hand.
Over the years, the Coast Guard has repeatedly scrapped plans for unmanned aircraft purchases and relied on other agencies’ assets, according to National Defense University research.
"The Coast Guard has become dependent on these partnerships for advancing its own UAS program," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Egan wrote in a 2011 NDU Joint Forces Staff College paper. "This is partially due to funding shortfalls, which have plagued the UAS program from its inception."
In August, the Coast Guard finally succeeded in landing a "Puma All Environment" unmanned aircraft on a cutter in the Arctic. It marked the first time a remote-control plane had taken off and landed on a USCG icebreaker. The drone was used to track a fake oil spill.