The U.S. Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022 states that the service will “strive to lower the barriers to innovation, including programmatic stovepipes, and recognize that smart failures in low-risk venues in the short term often yield lessons-learned that lead to long-term organizational success.”
To deliver the support at the “speed of need,” the Strategic Plan calls for the service to “encourage and reward our workforce for developing innovative ways to increase delivery speed and efficiency of mission support functions”noting that “innovation requires smart risk taking.”
According to the Strategic Plan, the Coast Guard brings enduring value to the nation and must adapt to the changing character of maritime operations. “To remain at the cutting edge, we will: foster a culture of experimentation and encourage acceptance of warranted risk to affect change; challenge our workforce to evolve and improve long-standing processes and operational constructs; and strengthen service innovation initiatives and accelerate the process of moving the best ideas to service-wide implementation.”
Wendy Chaves is the Coast Guard’s chief of RDT&E and Innovation, which stands for research, development, test, and evaluation, as well as the more recent addition: innovation. “The Strategic Plan emphasizes emerging technology and innovation – RDT&E and innovation all work together. They’re all important to the future success of the service,” she said.
That’s why the Coast Guard is taking major steps to accelerate innovation, including the establishment of the Blue Technology Center of Expertise (BTCOE); integration with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU); leveraging its Research and Development Center (RDC); and partnering with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), to include the Science and Technology Innovation Center (STIC) and participation with the Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP).
BLUE TECHNOLOGY CENTER OF EXPERTISE
The Coast Guard recently established the BTCOE at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in La Jolla, California, to increase the service’s awareness of emerging technologies.
Blue technology includes technology that supports maritime domain awareness (MDA), search and rescue, emergency response, maritime law enforcement, and protection of the marine environment.
Chaves said the BTCOE’s job is to educate academia, industry, and nonprofits that make up the innovation ecosystem about what the Coast Guard does and how it does it, and what the Coast Guard’s needs are – the gaps and challenges – so they have a better understanding of how they might be able to help. “We want them to better understand what our needs are, and we want to better understand what technology is out there that we could potentially leverage,” Chaves said.
At the same time, the BTCOE is essentially a tech scouting arm for the Coast Guard. “They learn about the technologies that are out there that have potential applicability to the Coast Guard, and educate Coast Guard members on what those are so we might possibly leverage them,” Chaves said.
“We foster and facilitate that discussion. We’re one of the conduits to help the tech sector to get their technology out to the Coast Guard,” said Peter Vandeventer, a program manager at the BTCOE. “The BTCOE is an avenue for industry to talk to us to share their information.”
“We have a great partnership with Scripps Institution of Oceanography,” said Jennifer Ibaven, also a program manager at BTCOE. “Scripps has opened the door to their blue tech and academic partners within the Scripps Corporate Alliance. Now we have to let our stakeholders know we’re here, and what we can do for them.”
U.S. Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles W. Ray recently remarked during the virtual Blue Tech Week that the blue tech community is a “key enabler” and said, “As we look to work smarter, as we work to leverage technology … the blue tech community is a group that allows us to do that.”
DEFENSE INNOVATION UNIT
Chaves said the Coast Guard stood up a detachment this past summer at the DIU, which is a Department of Defense (DOD) activity in Mountain View, California, that uses nontraditional contracting to access commercial technologies to benefit the military services.
The DIU is focused exclusively on fielding and scaling commercial technology across the U.S. military, with six technology areas of primary interest: artificial intelligence(AI); autonomy; cyber; human systems; advanced energy and materials; and space. DIU strengthens national security by accelerating the adoption of commercial technology throughout the military and growing the national security innovation base.
“We now have an active-duty Coast Guard representative at the DIU, as well as a team of reservists,” Chaves said.
DIU Coast Guard reservists will support the management of projects seeking commercial solutions to emerging capability gaps in the Coast Guard and across the DOD.
COAST GUARD RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CENTER
The RDC recently conducted a monthlong demonstration of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) off the coast of Hawaii to assess their ability to provide persistent maritime domain awareness. “We currently don’t have USVs in the operational fleet, but we’re evaluating some promising candidates,” said Chaves.“Two of them are participating in response to a request for proposals the Coast Guard issued, and another is an unmanned/optionally manned asset we acquired for R&D and will retain after the testing.”
USVs can provide persistent surveillance in distant and remote areas to monitor possible illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. “That’s our particular use case. We have a need for maritime domain awareness, but we can’t be everywhere all the time. We can extend that awareness through sensors on unmanned platforms, or potentially CubeSats, that can help us make timely decisions,” said Chaves.
“The Low-Cost Maritime Domain Awareness project was a great opportunity to work with industry partners to assess the state of the market in USV technology and see how it could be adapted to augment operations, especially employment against IUU fisheries,” said Capt. Dan Keane, RDC commanding officer. “This was an outstanding team effort by the RDC staff to organize and execute a very complex series of exercises and vignettes. In addition to evaluating the capabilities of the three on-scene assets, we were able to successfully demonstrate control of the vehicles from a remote command center at the RDC nearly 5,000 miles away from the operational areas. With knowledge gained from this project, we’ll be able to better inform Coast Guard leadership on strategies for future USV use to optimize coverage of vast areas of ocean while augmenting the Coast Guard’s limited manned resources.”
There are other missions where this technology could be applied, like port security, or looking for regulation violators. “The Coast Guard would still need to work out the CONOPS [concept of operations], but we want to further explore this technology,” said Chaves.
The follow-on to that is artificial intelligence. “When you have all of these additional sensors and start accumulating more data, you need to be able to process that data and make those timely decisions. That’s where AI and data analytics come into play,” Chaves said. “We’re working to make some recommendations on how the Coast Guard might utilize this technology.”
RDC recently transitioned a technology – called i911 – that pairs smartphone technology with a web-based interface so Coast Guard command centers can locate distressed mariners. The RDC entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with Callyo of St. Petersburg, Florida, to work together and customize features based on Coast Guard needs. Depending on the cellphone service provider, i911 can locate distress calls from up to 15 to 20 nautical miles offshore.
Another way to potentially address MDA is through space-based capability. The RDT&E and Innovation Program partnered with DHS S&T on the “Polar Scout” project, which conducted demonstrations to evaluate technologies that could be leveraged to support the detection and reporting of search and rescue beacons in arctic regions.
Communications are severely limited in the far north, and the area is so vast. “As part of the project, two small CubeSats were evaluated to detect search and rescue radio beacons in extreme latitudes and relay their location back to ground stations on Earth as well as improve communications in the Arctic, and potentially help locate people lost at sea,” Chaves said. “We hope CubeSats can detect distress signals, and get our assets to those locations faster.”
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY INNOVATION CENTER
The joint DHS S&T and Coast Guard Science and Technology Innovation Center (STIC), located at the RDC in New London, Connecticut, was established in 2016.
“We have a successful partnership with DHS S&T, which provides funding for the STIC, supporting the RDC’s technology evaluation efforts,” said Chaves.
“We bring applied technology to quick-hitting, practical, unit-specific needs that we can address in about a one-year time frame,” she said. “If it’s an urgent need, and we want to get to it quickly, that’s where we would address it.”
Unit-specific isn’t a limitation, however. One of the STIC’s recent projects involved low-cost tethered remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to provide better surveillance capabilities for cutters. “Feedback from STIC evaluations indicated a strong and immediate need for the capability, and following the completion of the effort, the Coast Guard issued policy authorizing low-cost ROVs for purchase, which, in the past, have been prohibitively expensive for unit procurement and sustainment. Now any unit can procure an ROV as long as it meets certain criteria, so it benefits multiple units.”
Another priority effort for the STIC team was assembling the first “technology go-kits” for shipment to cutters to address the counternarcotics initiative in theWestern Hemisphere. One of the technologies includes a device for tracking jettisoned objects and hazards to navigation at sea. The STIC combined commercial, off-the-shelf items with additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to develop initial prototypes of the Maritime Object Tracking Technology (MOTT). The Coast Guard RDT&E and Innovation Program is now working with the DHS Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP) to advance the technology by leveraging the commercial start-up community.
“Over the years, we have had successful joint projects and a good working relationship with Coast Guard Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation and Innovation,” said Marilyn Rudzinsky, portfolio manager with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. “The STIC is a great example of this partnership, and allows our two organizations to work closely together to leverage, adapt, and transform technologies into operational capabilities for the Coast Guard.”
SILICON VALLEY INNOVATION PROGRAM
The partnership with DHS S&T SVIP is another way the Coast Guard is reaching out to innovators. SVIP invests in start-up companies with viable technologies suitable for rapid prototyping that meet the needs of DHS operational components and programs. SVIP has taken on two big challenges for the Coast Guard.
The first expands on MOTT work done by the STIC. Tactical teams in pursuit of a fleeing vessel often witness evidence being tossed over the side into the water. As the pursuits can last for hours, the contraband can drift for miles, making it very difficult to find. Also, the Coast Guard spends significant time and resources reacting to reports of derelict objects and vessels adrift at sea.
That’s why DHS SVIP is soliciting reliable MOTT systems to mark and monitor objects in the water for recovery, according to Minh-Thu Phan, the Coast Guard SVIP program manager. “If you’re in the middle of a mission, you don’t always have time to stop, but you would want to go back later and find it, because you might need it for evidence, or it could be a hazard floating around on the water.”
The second effort addresses quick and accurate language translation for Coast Guard boarding teams, whose operations often involve non-English speakers. SVIP has issued a solicitation for a universal handheld translator to facilitate language translations, even when there is no connectivity to the Internet or the cloud. “We’re going through SVIP because it is geared toward those companies that are start-ups and leading-edge tech developers,” said Phan.
SVIP has solicited start-ups to develop or adapt a language translator that functions in a maritime operational environment to rapidly and effectively communicate in real time with non-English speakers and those who are unable to communicate verbally. “In a variety of rescue and investigation missions, accurate and swift translation of orders and directions are critical to the safety and security of the boarding team and the vessel occupants,” the solicitation stated. “Off-line capability is necessary because many USCG interactions where translation devices are required are far out at sea, in extreme environmental conditions and in locations without cell service or Internet connections.”
“A language translation technology that is fast, accurate, and easy to understand and operate would enhance USCG mission capabilities,” said Chaves. “Once deployed, this device would automatically identify numerous languages, translate, and display conversations in real time so USCG staff and the public they serve can understand each other more quickly and accurately.”
Phan sees SVIP as serving as a liaison, helping to connect people: “We’re always looking for partnerships to address our Coast Guard needs, and to figure out what technology may be out there to meet those needs.”
The Coast Guard is known for finding people lost at sea, but it’s a capability it wants to improve. The service has partnered with DHS S&T to develop multiple prize competitions to leverage the power of ideas and the competitive spirit to solve problems. For example, DHS S&T and the RDC conducted a “U.S. Coast Guard Ready for Rescue Challenge” prize competition to gather ideas for improving the ability to find people floating in the ocean needing rescue. The ideas are intended to be affordable solutions that everyone from professional mariners to pleasure-boaters can use. A panel of experts judged the submissions, and five ideas were awarded prize funding to develop prototypes for at-sea field testing.
Chaves said the Coast Guard uses a “crowd-sourcing” tool to facilitate the flow of information and easily share ideas, best practices, and lessons learned. “We have an open forum called CG_Ideas@Work to collect workforce-generated solutions and courses of action for focused challenges such as hurricane lessons learned, or the Coast Guard response to COVID-19. Coast Guard service members, civilian employees, and Auxiliarists can propose ideas for innovation, and anyone can respond with their comments. CG_Ideas@Work enables fleet-wide input on how we can address our greatest challenges.”
CG_Ideas@Work also hosts innovation challenges where the Coast Guard seeks input from the entire service on potential solutions to large problems that it is facing, such as how to increase life jacket usage rates, reduce the power consumption of moored ships, and better use mobile computing.
The Coast Guard’s “Idea Frenzy” takes idea-generation to a higher level. “We hold pitch-style events where a few innovative finalists have the opportunity to present their great ideas or inventions to Coast Guard leadership. We have a panel that listens to and reviews the presentations, including flag officers and other experts from the academic and technology community. Sometimes all an idea needs is visibility at the flag level,” said Chaves.
And the strategy seems to be working.
“As our service’s greatest asset, I have always valued and appreciated the feedback and contributions of our people,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area commander, who recently served as an Idea Frenzy judge. “While the concept of sharing our ideas and innovations isn’t new, the Idea Frenzy created a unique, entertaining and interesting way to engage our people. Innovation is creative process, and I think the Idea Frenzy helped foster that creative energy from our people.”
The U.S. Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022 calls for the service to innovate for better organizational performance: “Our bias for action and propensity to exercise on-scene initiative are ingrained in our Service’s character, extending into our mission support enterprise. We will shape our Service based on a logical understanding of operational commitments, current and predictive budget realities, and potential long-term mission demands. We will strengthen our capability to assess enterprise risk in fulfilling our statutory missions during steady-state operations and when responding to crises.”
“We support all the Coast Guard’s missions,” said Chaves. “Our focus is on the strategic priorities of the Coast Guard, and that’s where we align our efforts. Whether it’s a region, like the Arctic, or a mission like counternarcotics or search and rescue, we will find new and better solutions to make the Coast Guard, and the men and women who serve in it, more effective.”