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Unmanned, Over Water, On Guard

The Coast Guard partners with Customs and Border Protection and NAVAIR to gain experience with unmanned aircraft systems

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has yet to buy its first unmanned aircraft system (UAS), but a working partnership with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) gives leadership and operators of both agencies valuable maritime UAS experience. One UAS, named the Guardian, flown jointly by USCG and CBP crews is operational off the Florida coast under a special Certificate of Authority (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The modified Predator B has sea search radar with Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar, Automatic Identification System, and an electro-optical/infrared camera for maritime surveillance. With its manned patrol aircraft stretched thin, the USCG has an interest in similar unmanned aircraft that can fly up to 9,200 surveillance hours per year. CBP, meanwhile, plans a mixed fleet of about 24 Guardian and Predator B vehicles by 2016 for robust airborne surveillance capability over land and sea. “We know it’s just beneficial to partner with CBP,” said Capt. James Sommer, USCG deputy director of the CBP/USCG UAS Joint Program Office. “This helps us build our requirements.”

The CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) began operating the Predator B UAS in 2005 and teamed with the Coast Guard to demonstrate maritime UAS operations in March 2008. The two agencies share counter-narcotics and counter-illegal immigration missions, and legal authority in U.S. coastal waters. They formed their UAS Joint Program Office in November 2008. The CBP AMO now has six unmanned aircraft in service – one in the Guardian maritime configuration, another to follow in late 2010. “We operate seamlessly with Coast Guard crews on a day-to-day basis with the Guardian,” explained CBP UAS Director Tom Faller.

The Guardian partnership is one of two USCG UAS initiatives. CBP enables the Coast Guard to work with land-based UASs, like the fixed-wing turboprop Guardian. The Naval Air Systems Command gives the USCG access to a shipboard vertical take-off UAS the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. The USCG would like to borrow one or two Navy Fire Scouts for a technical demonstration on a National Security Cutter.

With more than 20 hours endurance and service ceilings to 50,000 feet, the turboprop Guardian is a powerful platform for maritime patrol and maritime domain awareness. The first Guardian has so far flown 306 flight hours from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., first in the Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) concluded in April and, then, operationally under the FAA’s COA issued in August. The COA sets safe operating altitudes, deconflicts UAS and manned flight operations, and formalizes recovery procedures in the warning area off the “Space Coast.” According to Faller, “It’s really a cooperative process between FAA Headquarters, the CBP/USCG UAS Joint Program Office and the FAA regional centers. Everyone has an equity stake to operate and perform on national security missions safely.”

CBP Air and Marine’s MQ-9 Predator B unmanned aircraft system supports Border Patrol agents charged with securing the U.S. border, and formed the basis for the first Guardian UAV. Photo courtesy DHS/CBP

Predator at Sea
The Guardian is actually the first maritime Predator B in operational service, taken from the CBP inventory and modified during overhaul by prime contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. The structures and systems starting point for the CBP air vehicle is the armed Air Force MQ-9 Reaper. The Guardian flies unarmed, but it retains the Raytheon AN/AAS-52 Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS-B) of the Reaper. The stabilized MTS-B gimbal contains a 3- to 5-micron infrared sensor. “It allows us to cut through some of the sea haze and obscurants to read the letters on the side of the vessel,” said Sommer. The electro-optical payload can also integrate daylight or image-intensified TV cameras. OT&E had the UAS downlink streaming video to ground stations and Coast Guard cutters. Operators comment that the electro-optical sensor can see a man-size target easily at 7 to 8 miles.

Guardian modifications include an under-slung belly-mounted radome for a choice of radars and dual alternators to power the active sensor. The Raytheon AN/APS-134 SeaVue XMR multi-mode maritime search radar on the UAS is used on some CBP P-3 and Dash-8 manned aircraft. The SeaVue can spot small targets in high sea states. The Guardian radar searched for self-propelled semi-submersibles in OT&E. It has both Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) modes. ISAR uses ship motion to profile sea targets 50 to 60 miles away. “That is a very important classification mode,” said Sommer. SAR is more effective at imaging land targets, although CBP baseline Predator Bs typically carry the more powerful General Atomics Lynx SAR/Ground Moving Target Indicator radar over land.

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) on the Guardian interrogates cooperating surface ships and helps sort out legitimate sea traffic from suspicious targets in crowded littoral waters. AIS returns and electro-optical imagery can be correlated with radar tracks.

The distinctive Guardian winglets are antennas for twin Rockwell Collins ARC-210 UHF/HF military tactical radios integrated, in addition to twin Wulfsburg RT-5000 multi-band public safety radios already on CBP Predator B aircraft. Sommer added, “This covers the entire maritime and public safety bands. This is a very powerful comms package.” The Guardian supplements the standard C-band line of sight datalink and Ku-band satellite link of the Predator B with INMARSAT satellite link for an additional beyond line-of-sight link.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Ground Control System is a high-tech complex able to deploy with the Guardian aircraft. Similar Coast Guard control systems could be based on land or at sea. Photo courtesy DHS/CBP

Like all Predators, the Guardian requires a pilot in the loop. Guardian crews include a pilot, an EO/IR operator with co-pilot duties, a radar operator, and a command duty officer. Missions up to 20 hours duration also require separate launch-and-recovery and mission-control crews. Launch-and-recovery pilots include CBP pilots and pilots from General Atomics under contract. Faller explained, “It’s not that we don’t have government pilots trained to do that, but it does take time to learn to perform those maneuvers safely and maintain concurrency.”

CBP currently has 26 UAS pilot-agents who, like USCG dual-qualified pilots, have fixed- and rotary-wing backgrounds. Guardian pilots train at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota to fly the Predator B from a Ground Control Station (GCS), and, then, join the Cape Canaveral contingent for Guardian-specific training. “The Coast Guard pilots we have are equally qualified to fly any of our UAS aircraft,” said Faller.

The Coast Guard currently has two mission control pilots drawn from different aviator communities. “We’ve been using both a mix of fixed-wing and rotary-wing,” said Sommer. The service will qualify its first enlisted UAS sensor operator and will add two more mission-control pilots this fall. CBP is expecting Guardians to maintain surveillance on the Great Lakes. Notional USCG UAS plans put three or four Guardian-like air vehicles at bases in the U.S. southeast, California, and Hawaii.

Fire Scout
With the cancellation of the Bell Eagle Eye tilt-rotor UAS, the Coast Guard’s vertical take-off UAS (VTUAS) vision re-focused on the Navy’s Fire Scout to operate from National Security Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters. The MQ-8B helicopter completed its first  operational deployment aboard a Navy frigate in April and helped the USCG make a drug bust in the Pacific. Two Fire Scouts accumulated about 60 flight hours flying from the USS McInerney over the six-month cruise in the U.S. Southern Command/4th Fleet area of responsibility. The VTUAS was generally flown and fixed by SH-60B helicopter pilots and maintainers from Navy squadron HSL-42, with help from Northrop Grumman representatives.

An MQ-8B Fire Scout hovers above the flight deck of the guided-missile frigate USS McInerney, May 2009. McInerney was preparing for an upcoming counter-illicit trafficking deployment. In April, the Fire Scout helicopter completed its first operational deployment on board McInerney and helped the U.S. Coast Guard make a drug bust in the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alan Gragg.

The Fire Scout GCS was installed in a room on board the McInerney, and video from the UAS payload streamed into the ship Combat Information Center and elsewhere on the ship. Unlike the piloted Guardian/Predator, the Fire Scout is a largely autonomous air vehicle, programmed via keyboard and mouse to fly a planned mission without pilot control inputs. A programmed deck-recovery course brings the unmanned helicopter one-half to three-quarter nautical miles behind the ship to acquire an Unmanned Common Automatic Recovery System. A transponder on the UAV helps shipboard radar determine aircraft position, and a recovery data link carries precise distance and slant range data between the Fire Scout and the moving ship. Ten to 15 feet from landing, the unmanned helicopter starts to mimic ship motion to set down gently on a deck trap.

The deployed MQ-8B had a FLIR Systems’ Brite Star II electro-optical/infrared payload and the AIS to interrogate cooperative ships. Video imagery was good enough to support a drug prosecution in a foreign court. The Navy noted that while the Fire Scout is very quiet, and the Brite Star payload is very powerful, the unmanned helicopter is less intimidating than a manned aircraft if trying to deter smugglers to change course. The Navy used H-60 helicopter pilots dual-trained to operate the UAS but qualified an enlisted pilot with a commercial pilot’s license later in the deployment. Mission payload operators were H-60 air system crewmen.

The next round of Navy MQ-8B shipboard operations is scheduled for November 2010 aboard the USS Freedom. Two Coast Guard officers will deploy with Freedom to perform Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) Government Flight Representative (GFR) and Ground Government Flight Representative activities. A radar will be integrated on the helicopter after formal Operational Evaluation next year. Software changes may simplify the pilot-vehicle interface for fleet operators. Northrop Grumman built seven Fire Scouts for the development program, and the Navy has nine of the 16 low-rate initial production aircraft on order.

Original Deepwater plans called for 69 Eagle Eye vertical take-off UAVs to operate from Coast Guard cutters. The Service hopes to borrow one or two Navy Fire Scouts for a technical demonstration from a National Security Cutter. “It’s very challenging making an aircraft – at least a UAS – shipboard compatible,” said Sommer. A Coast Guard pilot has been trained to fly the Fire Scout.

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.


As an aerospace and defense writer for more than 30 years, Frank has written in-depth...