Studying unmanned vessels

Chuck Thorpe

POTSDAM — Clarkson University Computer Science Professor Chuck Thorpe, a member of the Committee on Coast Guard Maritime Domain Awareness, has been involved in producing a new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report aimed at determining whether autonomous systems could help the U.S. Coast Guard execute its missions.

The report, titled “Leveraging Unmanned Systems for Coast Guard Missions” is now public after both the Coast Guard and Congress have been briefed on its contents. In short, the report to which Thorpe contributed calls for a more strategic approach for the Coast Guard in exploiting advancements in unmanned systems technology.

“I led the chapter on the ‘Unmanned Systems Context:’ what is the state of the art, what are the big drivers, what technologies do we anticipate will change rapidly over the next few years vs. will change slowly,” Thorpe said. “There’s a lot out there - literally thousands of robot vehicles in the big database maintained by AUVSI, the major trade association. We didn’t want to recreate that catalog, nor did we want to name individual systems because then our report would be out of date rapidly. We did point to some industry groups, and we did point to what the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and even other parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are doing.”

Thorpe said typically, the study team would have traveled to various locations to see the equipment being used and talk to people who either can contribute new technology or are the operators who will have to integrate the technology into their operations. After some initial meetings, COVID-19 forced a change of plans. Much of the work was done virtually.

“In the end, we made some recommendations on what the Coast Guard could do, both in terms of where individual systems could help, and in terms of all the organizational things the Coast Guard has to do to take on new technologies: what kinds of training, budgeting, legal authorizations, and organizational structures would allow the Coast Guard to take advantage of these new tools,” Thorpe said.

The roughly 15-month study experience was eye-opening, Thorpe said, and gave him a new appreciation for what the Coast Guard is doing.

“I was left profoundly impressed with the Coast Guard. They have enormous missions, and not enough resources,” he said. “If we can give them unmanned aerial vehicles to extend the range of visibility of their ships, that would multiply their effectiveness in search and rescue. If we can give them automated systems to process some of the data they collect, that will free up human labor to do more creative tasks.”

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