We’ve all seen the footage of drone strikes. Over the past 10 years, the nightly news has been littered with the grainy proof that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are valuable and effective tools in the war on terror.
But how can UAVs be used in a maritime environment? Can the same technology that allow U.S. forces to track the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan help secure our nation’s vast shoreline?
That is the very question a Congressional Subcommittee asked at a recent hearing titled “How to Improve the Efficiency, Safety and Security of Maritime Transportation: Better Use and Integration of Maritime Domain Awareness Data.”
Enter the Wave Glider
On hand to answer that question were representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard and industry experts including Bill Vass, president and CEO of Liquid Robotics.
Much of the committee testimony centered on the current and future potential use of traditional UAVs, which resemble small gliders. Since 2007 the Coast Guard has been working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to develop a program utilizing traditional land-based drones, while the newest National Security Class Cutter was designed with onboard UAV capabilities.
Vass presented a different approach designed specifically for maritime applications. Enter the Wave Glider Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) from Liquid Robotics.
The Wave Glider is a low-profile, unmanned surface vehicle that is capable of long-range, extended deployments with little or no need for human interaction. This is made possible by the fact that the unit is propelled by wave-generated energy, coupled with solar panel arrays to power onboard computing, communications and sensor payloads.
History of AMVs
Autonomous maritime vessels are not new. Ever since the Greeks defeated the Syracusans using fire ships in 413 B.C., leaders of the world’s navies have attempted to find a way to send units into the fray without endangering sailors.
In modern times, several companies have floated the idea of unmanned watercraft, some even built specifically for maritime law enforcement. Early models were nothing more than traditional patrol vessels refitted to operate by remote control. Buying the vessel and then funding the refit made this cost-prohibitive, though, and the idea of sending a 2,000-pound high-speed vessel outfitted as a weapon platform into a busy harbor presented more liability than most people were willing to accept.
Furthermore, the only real advantage these early models offered was mobility. When outfitted with cameras, one unit could be used to track a suspect vessel throughout a target area, as opposed to having to deploy dozens of cameras along the suspected route.
However, even this was manpower-intensive due to the need to have an operator controlling the unmanned vessel 24/7.
Fire and Forget
Again, unlike the prior attempts at remote-controlled vessels, today’s generation of AMV / ASV is truly autonomous. These units can be launched by as few as two people and, due to today’s advanced navigation equipment, be pre-programmed to patrol a specific grid or maintain station for extended periods.
A single operator can then manage multiple units (one pilot for approximately 15 vehicles) from a command center or even a laptop, with the ability to receive email or text alerts when an ASV encounters a problem or detects some predetermined activity.
The Wave Glider has also proven its ability to continue to operate 24/7/365 regardless of weather conditions. Tests have included continuous operation from California to Australia (awarded the Guinness World Record for longest journey traveled by an unmanned autonomous surface vehicle), and units have remained operational through several hurricanes and typhoons while collecting data for customers, including NOAA.
The biggest advantage of any ASV is its ability to allow you get more done with less. Because each Wave Glider unit can be preprogrammed to conduct specific missions and then operated by one pilot, you can deploy several units that work as a team or have each conduct separate missions in different areas.
Example uses include:
• Security picket line
• Security patrol around harbor entrance or high-value assets
• Surveillance of sensitive area(s) or suspect targets
• Patrol or search and rescue in hazardous conditions or areas
When I talked to Liquid Robotics Global Maritime Security Director Glenn Ignazio, he suggested other potential missions, including harbor security, enforcement of security zones, detection and surveillance of smugglers, and early warning/detection near high-value targets such as port terminals or airports.
A Floating Utility Truck
With a built-in solar power source and the ability to carry a large payload — both onboard and towed behind — the Wave Glider can be outfitted in almost limitless configurations. During his testimony before the House Subcommittee, Vass described it as “a floating utility truck.”
Cameras, communication equipment, acoustic modems, radiological detection equipment — regardless of your needs, if it can fit in the payload area or be towed on a Wave Glider’s wing rack, you can use it. Even better, the unit can be programmed to send collected data to the controller in real time without the need to recover the device.
Better Than Human?
I don’t believe unmanned units can replace human assets, especially when it comes to law enforcement. First off, law enforcement is more than simply collecting data — it also requires correctly interpreting that data. Furthermore, at some point in time all successful cases involve an arrest.
However, unmanned units can be a valuable resource used to support and augment traditional units. These remote units can be deployed to high-hazard areas or during long-term surveillance or search and rescue missions, thus saving human crews from potential harm and allowing for better deployment of limited resources.
With the ability to be deployed for up to one year, and with no need for fuel, vehicles such as the Wave Glider can reduce costs compared to either surface or aerial assets — saving dollars, reducing risk, and increasing operational efficiency.
Just have UAVs have found a place in traditional military and law enforcement operations, sooner or later everyone in maritime enforcement should get on board with ASVs.