US Coast Guard starts operational testing of small unmanned aircraft system for NSCs

US Coast Guard’s program to equip its National Security Cutters (NSC) with small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) has received approval to start acquisition and initial operational testing on board an NSC.

The service’s approval allows the program to proceed with its planned release of a request for proposal (RFP) and contract award for sUAS for NSC capability.

The Coast Guard’s system of choice, Insitu-built ScanEagle, was earlier installed on NSC Stratton which deployed with the system in 2017. The ScanEagle aided interdictions in nine of the 11 drug seizures the ship made during its summer deployment; this was part of a record offload of more than 50,550 pounds of cocaine, worth approximately $679.3 million.

During this next phase which was approved Oct. 20, the program will install sUAS infrastructure on an NSC and conduct operational testing of the sUAS capability prior to deploying the system across the rest of the fleet.

“This is not only a program acquisition decision event milestone; it’s a milestone event for the Coast Guard,” said Jeff Bishop, sUAS for NSC program manager. “We’ve never had a UAS program get to this point.”

The prototype sUAS deployments on Stratton have already improved operations. Having the sUAS on board “was a major force multiplier for us; it enhanced our situational awareness and increased our operational efficiency and execution,” said Capt. Craig Wieschhorster, Stratton commanding officer. “It allows me as commanding officer to see what my boarding teams are looking at. Basically, it gives us the tactical advantage out there and strengthens litigation support once suspects are taken to U.S. courts.”

The increased situational awareness, persistent surveillance and video capability provided by the sUAS “is a capability that we don’t currently have. Some people were skeptical: it’s unmanned and small. But this is much, much more than just flying around with a camera,” Bishop added.

The Coast Guard plans to release a request for proposal for sUAS for NSC capability in early fiscal year 2018. The contract award for the retrofit of Stratton and installation on one other NSC is targeted for later that fiscal year.