Flying into the future

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy patrols the Arctic Ocean during a Coast Guard Research and Development Center joint civil and federal search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point, Alaska, July 13, 2015. The Healy is a 420-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy patrols the Arctic Ocean during a Coast Guard Research and Development Center joint civil and federal search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point, Alaska, July 13, 2015. The Healy is a 420-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

There is no such thing as enough. There’s no too careful, or over prepared. Satisfactory is just a layover on the way to better. Improved safety, efficiency and assets are always on the horizon.

That’s the only way to conduct search and rescue: finding the best way to operate when lives are on the line.

It’s pivotal that a rescue crew, whether on the water or in the sky, has the full use of their wits and physical power when it matters most. Utilizing an unmanned system that could potentially spot survivors or wreckage from high in the sky could reduce the time rescue crews spend searching, and ultimately reduce the time that victims spend at the mercy of the elements.

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Crow sits on a piece of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean during a joint civil and federal search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point.

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Crow sits on a piece of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean during a joint civil and federal search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point.

The Coast Guard’s answer to meeting demands of the future in the world of response is two-pronged: partially through the rigorous testing processes of the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center, and also through practical experience.

The latest testing site for emerging capabilities is Alaska’s Arctic region. A team from the RDC brought with them other scientists and agencies aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy to, among other things, evaluate the potential of merging manned and unmanned aircraft during a search and rescue case. The Arctic may seem like a faraway place, but with traffic increasing—energy exploration, shipping and adventure tourism—there is a growing demand for the Coast Guard to be able to perform the same missions they carry out elsewhere in the United States.

These missions specifically fall to the Coast Guard’s 17th District, headquartered in Juneau. During the mid-July joint exercise with the Healy, ConocoPhillips, Insitu Inc., Era Helicopters, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others, 17th District command center watchstanders oversaw all the action.

“The 17th District’s role in the exercise was to act as the SAR mission coordinator and SAR planning,” said Paul Webb, who managed the command center’s response during the simulated plane crash. “Air Station Kodiak’s forward operating location in Deadhorse provided the Coast Guard aviation assets.”

For reference, the Coast Guard’s nearest permanent operational base to the Arctic Circle is in Kodiak, more than 600 miles to the south. The Coasties who serve on the little rock in the Gulf of Alaska are renowned for their grit; they patrol the Gulf, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, and conduct aerial search and rescue across the entire state and North Pacific.

What’s unique about maritime traffic in Alaska is how seasonal it is. A stretch of water may be relatively empty until a targeted fishing species opens, and suddenly the area is dense with commercial fishing vessels. While the Bering Strait doesn’t see many vessels in mid-winter, when it is frozen solid, that changes in the summer and fall. To meet the fluctuating demand for search and rescue capability, Air Station Kodiak deploys forward operating locations throughout the state at different times of the year. FOL Deadhorse, the Coast Guard’s first temporary base in the small industrial town on Prudhoe Bay, is the answer to Arctic traffic this year. It’s a small part of the 17th District’s annual Arctic Shield operations, which has included FOLs in Barrow and Kotzebue in years past.

An Era Helicopters crew lowers a Priority 1 Air Rescue swimmer into the Arctic Ocean during a joint search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point, Alaska.

An Era Helicopters crew lowers a Priority 1 Air Rescue swimmer into the Arctic Ocean during a joint search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point, Alaska.

The team of pilots, mechanics, technicians and rescue swimmers and their two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters operate out of the Deadhorse Aviation Center runway. Fortunately, the crews rotating through Deadhorse were yet to have had a SAR case to respond to, so the exercise gave them a chance to finally practice their art over the Arctic Ocean.

Search patterns, communications with multiple assets, and even ice are standard fare for Coast Guard aircrews. Flying on the same mission as an unmanned aircraft is not.

“The goal was to vector us, the rescue asset, on scene,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class John Crow, an aviation survival technician from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, deployed to Alaska for the busy summer season. “It required a whole bunch of different interagency coordination.”

He’s not kidding about coordination. While Webb and the 17th District command center staff coordinated the rescue efforts, an Insitu Inc. team at Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Mobile Facility launched an unmanned aircraft system and passed operational control of the aircraft to the Healy to execute the search pattern developed by command center staff. The crew of the Healy, the on-scene commander, relayed communications as well as information that the unmanned aircraft collected to the 17th District and the aircrew members in Deadhorse.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alejandro Delgado controls a hoist cable while lowering a rescue swimmer into the Arctic Ocean near Oliktok Point, Alaska.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alejandro Delgado controls a hoist cable while lowering a rescue swimmer into the Arctic Ocean near Oliktok Point, Alaska.

The team completed the objectives of the exercise over a two-day period.  The first day, the team successfully conducted pitch-and-catch operations between land and the Healy. Once on-scene, the unmanned aircraft provided overhead imagery of the Coast Guard and Era Helicopters assets simulating recovery of the targets, which included a six-man raft and Thermal Oscar, a water rescue training dummy designed by the RDC to simulate life-like conditions when viewed with a thermal imaging device.  The second day, the unmanned aircraft successfully vectored the manned aircraft into the targets, ultimately reducing manned asset time on-scene, which is beneficial in an environment as harsh as the Arctic.   The team experienced difficulties locating the targets during both days of the exercise, and concluded that more research and development in technology would be necessary to locate targets in an ice-infested environment in the future.

“This all was just to prove and test the ability to operate together, with icebreakers, helicopters and unmanned assets,” said Lt. Rand Semke, a Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilot who flew during one day of the exercise. “I think it was a glance into the future.”

Even though the results weren’t perfect, it did give the RDC personnel answers to many of the questions they had, and the lessons learned will further the Coast Guard’s progress toward effectively using unmanned technology.

“I’ve only been in the rate for a year,” said Crow of his time in the rescue swimmer position, “so hopefully in my career we’ll be able to see these in action, to see some good results from them.”

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