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Insitu hopes to give U.S. Coast Guard cutters the UAS advantage

By Patrick C. Miller | February 16, 2017

During his career flying with the U.S. Coast Guard, Ron Termain remembers a mission on which he hovered his helicopter almost directly over a pair of divers he was trying to find in the Gulf of Mexico during a search-and-rescue mission.

The divers thought they were about to be rescued, but Termain saw dolphins—not humans—and flew off. The next day after the divers were rescued, they related to Termain how close he’d been.

“They told us, ‘You guys came down and hovered right next to us. You were right there! You pointed right at me and then you flew away. We thought you went to get a boat,’” Termain recalled. 

Today, Termain is the business executive for Coast Guard affairs with Insitu Inc., a subsidiary of the Boeing Co. He’s spent the past eight years working with the Coast Guard to equip its national security cutters (NSC) with small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

If Termain would have had access to an Insitu Scan Eagle small UAS equipped with the company’s ViDAR (visual detection and ranging) sensor, he’s confident he would have easily spotted the divers he missed.

“I flew with the Coast Guard for 23 years and I’m shocked at what it can do,” he said of the technology. “Being able to spot a person in the water over a mile away is beyond impressive. I don’t say it lightly when I say it’s a game-changer.”

By the end of the year, the coast guard is expected to issue a request for a proposal that will eventually lead to all its NSCs being equipped with small UAS. Termain is hopeful that Insitu’s Scan Eagle will be the aircraft of choice. After all, the Scan Eagle has been tested and operationally demonstrated on Coast Guard cutters for the past several years.

Although Scan Eagle is capable of carrying a variety of what Termain calls “best in class” sensors, it’s the combination of Scan Eagle and ViDAR that makes it an ideal platform not only for search-and-rescue mission, but also for drug interdiction missions.

Based on the size of an object, ViDAR is capable and detecting everything from a person a mile away to a freighter 30 miles away. It does this by spotting pixel anomalies on a video overlay, analyzing them and then zooming in for visual inspection.

“Depending on what your mission set is and what you’re looking for, you can sort out what it is that you don’t really need to look at,” Termain explains. “If we’re looking for vessels that are greater than 50 feet, we can sort out everything below that and everything greater than 50 feet. We can investigate those targets.”

This capability is especially useful in the Coast Guard’s efforts to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the country.

“Right now they’re battling crime syndicates that have very deep pockets,” Termain noted. “They’re buying submarines; they’re buying semi-submersibles; they’re sending out droves of small vessels loaded down with cocaine. The amount of narcotics that are flowing across the border in comparison to what we stop is phenomenal. We’re stopping less than 10 percent.”

Whether it’s saving lives or stopping drugs, Termain believes that Scan Eagle gives the Coast Guard cutters an important edge.

“Being able to put the tools in the hands of the Coast Guard so they can find the targets is vital its missions,” he said.