Written by Loretta Haring
The Coast Guard Office of Research and Development was established Nov. 1, 1968, to answer the service’s need to increase its efforts to discover new concepts and develop technological improvements necessary to meet present and future mission requirements, as the missions of the Coast Guard have become increasingly more demanding and complex as a result of continuing national economic growth and technological advances.
50 years later, the mission hasn’t changed.
“The Coast Guard must continue to be ready, relevant and responsive to meet the maritime needs of the nation. We must keep pace with the complexities of an increasingly sophisticated maritime environment and rapidly adapting transnational organized crime,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Celebrating its 50th year, the Coast Guard’s Office of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation has been essential in providing the most capable assets, equipment and modern technology to our workforce and missions – that role is even more critical today.”
Before 1968, the office of engineering performed most R&D efforts as a collateral function. The new office was charged with developing a program responsive to long-range objectives, immediate requirements, fiscal limitations and advancing technology. The program was established as the commandant’s science adviser and was led by a Coast Guard flag officer. The original office of R&D had a nucleus of 38 military and civilian personnel.
Shortly after the stand-up of the RDT&E Program, the Coast Guard dedicated the Marine Environmental Fire and Safety Test Facility, now the Joint Maritime Test Facility, at Mobile, Alabama, in 1969 as a test facility for burn research. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center was established in 1972 on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Groton, Connecticut; it was later moved to a new facility in New London, Connecticut, in 2009.
Because of its relatively small size and budget, the program expands its capabilities through partnerships with other government agencies, academia and private industry. Current partners include agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate and Customs and Border Protection; the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement; and Department of Defense organizations including the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. New partnership agreements were recently reached with the Air Force Research Laboratory and Naval Postgraduate School.
When the program was established, one of its main priorities was the National Data Buoy Systems, which was capable of collecting and disseminating nationally required oceanographic and marine meteorological data. Other areas of concentration were oceanography, ocean engineering, engineering physics, navigational science, communications, nuclear science and operations research. The office was also charged with developing and evaluating prototypes, methods and processes for search and rescue, aids to navigation, merchant marine safety, auxiliary readiness, testing of new materials, and the application of psychological and social sciences for human factors purposes.
One of the first successes of the program involved machinery space fire detecting. Fire detection in machinery spaces aboard ships was becoming even more critical because of reductions in personnel. For the project, nine different types of detection devices were installed in three different fire areas under differing ventilation conditions.
One high-profile accomplishment was the creation of a comprehensive multi-agency oil spill prevention/response research initiative following the Exxon Valdez oil spill March 24, 1989, when about 10.8 million gallons of oil was released into Prince William Sound, Alaska, when the tanker ran aground.
Under its law enforcement category, the program also began a multi-purpose unmanned vehicle evaluation project. Initial evaluation of unmanned vehicles included joining a Department of Defense project involving a remotely piloted vehicle and procurement of the first Coast Guard remotely operated undersea vehicle.
In 2007, the RDC evaluated the U.S. Navy’s Sea Fighter vessel with a modified catamaran design for potential applicability for Coast Guard missions. Engagement modeling and simulation and human systems integration were used to help in the analysis. Conclusions included that the small crew size (26) significantly limited sustained underway operations and adversely impacted flexibility, but the high level of automation provided more mission capability than was normally achievable with that size of crew.
Evaluation of unmanned technologies continues currently as the area that can have the most impact across a majority of Coast Guard missions. High on the list of priorities is persistent domain awareness to help disrupt transnational criminal networks. The expansion of interest in the Arctic also brings a need for greater situational awareness and better communication capabilities in that challenging region.
“The new challenge for the RDT&E Program lies with the data generated from sensors,” said Wendy Chaves, chief of the Office of RDT&E. “To manage that information, the RDT&E Program must explore artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to aid in processing, exploitation and dissemination of the data to ensure delivery of the most relevant and actionable information to operators. Automated analysis tools could assist operators with the sorting and prioritization of data, empowering commanders with critical decision-making information.”
Research efforts have also been driven by emerging events. Major events that have influenced the RDT&E portfolio include the Argo Merchant, Exxon Valdez, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, and the sinking of the SS El Faro. For example, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill prompted a renewed interest in testing methods of controlled burning for oil spill remediation, which is conducted at the Joint Maritime Test Facility. The program also utilizes its crowdsourcing platform, CG_Ideas@Work, to provide an opportunity for all members of the Coast Guard to suggest ideas for research projects.
The RDT&E project portfolio currently is updated each fiscal year, and includes more than 50 projects closely aligned to mission needs. To get the solutions into the hands of operators quickly, research generally focuses on applying existing technologies.
“While the blistering pace of technological change can seem daunting, the researchers, engineers and strategists in our RDT&E program are thrilled to help integrate those new opportunities in our missions,” Rear Adm. Michael Haycock, assistant commandant for acquisitions, testified before the House subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation in May 2018. “As the Coast Guard moves in new directions, RDT&E will be increasingly vital to provide knowledge and tools to manage risks and enhance operations.”
During its 50 years of existence, the RDT&E Program has completed research that has been vital to the successful advancement of Coast Guard missions including search and rescue, aids to navigation, spill response, and port and cybersecurity as well as supporting the acquisition of new assets such as the national security cutter, offshore patrol cutter and unmanned aircraft system capability. The program has adapted as necessary to be able to offer the service the skills necessary to compete in today’s technology-driven world.
The RDT&E Program has even advanced into working in space-based technologies with the DHS/Coast Guard Polar Scout Program. Two small satellites or “cubesats” capable of detecting transmissions from emergency position indicating radio beacons will be deployed this fall to evaluate their ability to detect and geolocate distress transmission in an Arctic environment and provide signal information to a special network of ground stations.