On June 17, 2018, not long after the 990-foot cargo vessel American Spirit, fully loaded with iron ore, grounded in Duluth Harbor, Minnesota, Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit (MSU) Duluth had learned nobody had been injured. But an important question remained: Did the harbor have a pollution incident on its hands?
Within a half-hour of the grounding, Chief Scott Lenz of Station Duluth’s Aids to Navigation Team had left his son’s baseball game and was on his way back to the harbor. In a phone call with his sector command, he learned the nearest Coast Guard Air Station, in Traverse City, Michigan – 342 miles away, by air – was preparing to dispatch a helicopter and crew to survey the harbor for signs of pollution.
“We’re not doing anything fundamentally different in the Coast Guard with these systems,” Lampe said. “We’re doing the same jobs we’ve done forever. We just get to do them faster, safer, and more cheaply.”
Just a couple of weeks earlier, as part of a Coast Guard pilot project, Lenz’s unit had been the first recipient of a short-range unmanned aircraft system (SR-UAS), the Typhoon H, a battery-powered hexacopter less than 2 feet wide, weighing a little over 16 pounds and equipped with a video camera. Lenz thought the new drone could do the job faster and with significant cost savings. “I said: ‘I’m about 35 minutes out of Duluth. Can I get there and put this UAS up?’ We had never done it before. No one in the Coast Guard had ever done it before. We didn’t even really know how to do it.”
It was true: Nobody had ever used a drone to perform an aerial pollution verification for the Coast Guard. But the whole point of the new program was to figure out what was possible with a short-range UAS. Lenz was told to launch the drone. “In 15 minutes, I verified there was no pollution,” he said. “The images I get off this thing are way better than any Coast Guard helicopter crew is going to get with their iPhone®, shooting while hanging out over the side of the helicopter. This is instantaneous. I’m sharing them with the MSU, with district, with staff – within minutes, and not two or three hours later.”
According to Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Lampe, who manages the short-range UAS program for the Coast Guard’s Office of Aviation Forces, the use of small drones for routine survey and inspection work isn’t all that groundbreaking in itself. The systems are pretty simple, actually: remote-controlled aircraft outfitted with digital cameras. And yet, Lampe said, he doesn’t remember the last time the Coast Guard was this excited about a new development.