Coast Guard searches for small drone to launch from ship

The U.S. Coast Guard is looking for a small unmanned aerial vehicle for use on its Legend-class national security cutters.

Under a draft request for proposals issued in the spring, the service will evaluate platforms with an eye toward issuing a full RFP by year’s end. A fiscal 2018 award would bring advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities along with search-and-rescue enhancements to nine vessels.

“As long as we have been talking about this class of ship, there has always been the expectation that there would be an unmanned system involved,” said Cmdr. Dan Broadhurst, unmanned aircraft systems division chief in the Coast Guard’s aviation capabilities office.

Up to now, money has been the main sticking point. The service has looked at multiple systems that, while capable, have clocked in at the “high tens of millions,” Broadhurst said. Now the service has tasked industry to come forward with a less expensive option.

In addition to the mainstay electro-optical and infrared systems that will form the core payload, the Coast Guard is especially keen to look at solutions that offer persistence, or the ability to execute missions for up to 12 hours at a stretch.

“There aren’t a lot of spare hands to launch and recover aircraft, so we need something that requires minimal manning and has a high degree of autonomy,” Broadhurst said.

The Coast Guard will be looking for a vendor that can not only supply the platform but also deliver the expertise needed to operate the unmanned craft, since UAV operations require a degree of technical proficiency not readily available across the service, said Jeffrey Bishop, program manager for small unmanned aircraft systems.

“At this point, the government as the operator is definitely off the table for this piece of the acquisition. We don’t have the people with the needed skill sets to operate these vehicles,” he said. The RFP is asking for “a holistic package, including the people, the antennas, the software. It is the full spectrum.”

This won’t be the Coast Guard’s first foray into UAV territory. A prototype craft called ScanEagle…

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