2018 – The Coast Guard Selects the ScanEagle UAS for NSC Cutters

The Coast Guard awarded a potential $117.2 million contract to Boeing’s Insitu unit to provide contractor owned and operated small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) aboard its fleet of National Security Cutters (NSC).

Challenged with policing a vast six million square-mile maritime area to disrupt and deter the flow of illegal drugs the Coast Guard specified the need for a shipboard small UAS able to conduct surveillance, detection, classification and identification operations providing real-time imaging and communications relay to Coast Guard vessels. The ScanEagle was selected. At present, a capability to take photos of the ocean surface, check for anomalies and alert the aircraft operator for further investigation is being conducted.

The Coast Guard began infrastructure installation in April 2018, with plans to begin installing hardware on Coast Guard Cutters James in fall 2018, Munro in late winter 2019, and Bertholf in late spring or early summer 2019


bombardier guardianUpgraded fixed-wing search and shipboard- helicopter operations in the Coast Guard proved to be highly successful as force multipliers. This coupled with the notable development of UASs for surveillance purposes at reduced operational costs led the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Research and Development Center (R&DC) to conduct multiple analyses during the past seventeen years to explore the potential benefits of integrating UAS technology into Coast Guard operations.

The first UAS to launch and recover from a Coast Guard vessel took place aboard the USCG Cutter Thetis during the period 21-22 November 1999. In February/March 2001, the R&DC deployed the Condor Small UAS from the USCG Cutter Harriet Lane. In August 2002, the R&DC completed a four-day, shore-based field test in Galveston, TX utilizing the Sentry HP small UAS.

In 2002, within the Integrated Deepwater System (IDS), a contract was awarded to Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS)—a joint venture between Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to implement the transformation of Coast Guard aviation. It encompassed the progressive upgrading of selected legacy assets and the introduction of new and more capable fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

eagle eyeBell Helicopter was awarded a contract to commence concept and preliminary design work on the HV-911 Eagle Eye vertical take-off and landing unmanned aerial vehicle. for shipboard operations. Prototypes were developed and built for testing in 2005. The Coast Guard had planned to purchase 69 Eagle Eyes if the aircraft met the requirement. The Coast Guard canceled the Bell HV-911 contract in March 2008 because it did not meet performance requirements. As a result, the UAV renamed UAS, acquisition program became focused on technologically mature systems with commonality with Department Of Homeland Security and Department of Defense programs.

In November 2008 the CPB and the USCG formed a UAS Joint Program Office (JPO) to jointly operate a maritime version of the Predator-B and identify common maritime UAS requirements, including sensors, command and control, data exploitation, logistics and training, and basing. Named the Guardian, they are used to conduct long-range surveillance in support of counter-narcotics operations in the southeast coastal and Gulf of Mexico border regions and drug source and transit zones, where maritime radar is necessary to detect a variety of threats. Experience has shown the Coast Guard to be disadvantaged by limited access for Coast Guard specific utilization. The Coast Guard is presently evaluating procurement of its own land based UAS.

MQ 9 Reaper CBP

Simultaneously an evaluation of available tactical vertical-lift UAS vehicles for operation on the National Security Cutter (NSC) was begun. The NSC is an advanced capability vessel designed to employ both manned and unmanned aircraft to cover a surveillance range of 12,000 nautical miles. Several UASs were considered such as the Boeing A-160, the Aurora Excalibur, and the Northrop Grumman MQ-8.Fire Scout. The Coast Guard focused on the Fire Scout, a rotary –wing UAS .that was being tested, evaluated operationally and upgraded by the U.S. Navy.

In recognition that a cutter-based UAS platform had not yet been technologically proven and operations in the Coast Guard maritime environment presented unique challenges. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center collaborated with the Naval Air Systems Command to conduct a demonstration of the Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system aboard Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf in December of 2014. The 10-day demonstration met the Coast Guard’s objectives, performing launch and recovery operations, conducting various simulated search patterns and transmitting data and imagery.

MQ8 Fires Scout

The MQ8 Fires Scout is an autonomous helicopter. It requires a flight deck and a flight deck crew. During the evaluation, there were many pluses but flight endurance was lacking. The purchase price of the Fire Scout escalated over the period of its development. The Fire Scout was put on hold and attention was directed to small UAS systems.

Several small UAS systems were evaluated. The Scan Eagle was chosen for evaluation based upon a significant amount of satisfactory service provided other military services and corporate entities. A Series of three evaluations were conducted.

The initial evaluation, that took place on the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, was designed specifically to see how daily operation of a sUAS could be integrated with NSC crew routines. The evaluation showed how little impact on the other work the crew had to do on the ship. There was also another benefit that was highlighted. The Scan Eagle was capable of a 12-hour mission on a gallon of fuel as opposed to a helicopter using hundreds of gallons of fuel.

The second evaluation of the Scan Eagle again took place aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf. These exercises were part of an ongoing effort to explore UAS capabilities and shipboard handling techniques. During the two-week deployment, the UAS demonstration team operated a ScanEagle UAS for more than 90 hours of flight time and aided in the interdiction of nearly 600 kilograms of cocaine – the first Coast Guard interdiction conducted with the support of an embarked UAS asset. The ScanEagle was deployed by the Bertholf to provide real-time surveillance and location information of a suspected go-fast vessel. The UAS located the target vessel and maintained constant on-scene surveillance until the cutter-based MH-65D Short Range Recovery helicopter and Over the Horizon (OTH) cutter boats arrived to interdict and apprehend the vessel’s crew.

The third evaluation at Wallops Island was conducted to get a better picture of the efficacy of capabilities the industry can provide to the Coast Guard for missions over a maritime environment,

The Coast Guard completed system operational verification testing of the Scan Eagle on Coast Guard Cutter Stratton on Jan. 2. 2017. The Stratton crew and UAS program officials tested the power, communications, and launch and recovery systems that make up the sUAS to ensure that all parts functioned as needed and to identify areas requiring improvement. The full system consists of the aircraft, a ground control station, and a forward and an aft directional antenna, which contain the necessary fiber optic cables needed to communicate with the aircraft. The Scan Eagle is 8.2-foot-long with a 16-foot wingspan. It is sent into the air from a pneumatic launcher and recovered with a hook and arresting wire. ScanEagle is designed to remain in the air for more than 24 hours.

ScanEagle sea launch1

The shore-based, long range, ultra-endurance UAS

With the system installed the Stratton departed Alameda on a six-week deployment in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The onboard ScanEagle flew 39 sorties for a total of 279 hours, including one operation where the aircraft provided persistent surveillance for 22.7 flight hours in a 24-hour period. ScanEagle was equipped with multiple sensors including electro-optic, thermal and telescope cameras that delivered a range of aerial imagery to the Stratton crew and decision makers, enabling them to better execute real-time actionable intelligence. The information ScanEagle provided will assist with prosecution efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice. By the end of the deployment, the Scan Eagle had directly assisted the Stratton crew with conducting four interdictions, seizing more than 1,676 kilograms of illicit contraband valued at $55 million and apprehending ten suspected drug traffickers.

The Scan Eagle was selected as the Coast Guards small UAS. On the basis of performance and capability, it is expected that the Scan Eagle UAS will be installed on all helicopter capable Coast Guard Cutters.

The Coast Guard has expressed high interest in acquiring land-based high endurance UAS. Congress in fiscal year2017 appropriated $18 million for the Coast Guard to test and evaluate long-range, ultra-endurance UAS ( LR/U-LE) for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the narco source and transient zones.

The Coast Guard Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) Program issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) on May 3 2018 for long range/ultra-long endurance (LR/U-LE) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology demonstrations and flight services to support an evaluation of current technologies to enhance Coast Guard missions. The Coast Guard is exploring capabilities able to stay aloft for more than 24 hours and carry a payload of electro-optical and infrared sensors, maritime surface search radar, VHF/UHF/HF communications systems, data-link and direction-finding equipment. The scope of work includes the preparation, inspection, transport, ground and flight demonstration, operation

In addition to the MQP predator B there is the RQ4 Global Hawk which is extremely expensive and four others that would seem to fit the parameters. The four others are relatively new on the scene and do not have an extended operational performance .record.

Possible Alternatives:

It is of note that the Coast Guard awarded a contract to install the Minotaur mission system, developed by Naval Air Systems Command on two new C-130Js with an option to convert up to seven aircraft already delivered to the Coast Guard. The first HC-130J outfitted with Minotaur was delivered to the Coast Guard fleet in June 2017. The first HC-144 was delivered in July 2017. The Coast Guard Directorate states this will be installed across Coast Guard fixed-wing platforms, including the HC-130J, HC-144, and HC-27J fleets. In layman’s terms, you use aircraft radar inputs that an operator interfaces with a tactical sensor management system…  Nothing is mentioned as to radar type so it would seem the existing aircraft radar system would be used for surface search only. It is not known how this will affect the Land-based high endurance UAS program. A UAS system could provide both air and surface capability.

The cost of UAS aircraft and operation will be a consideration. Unmanned is actually pilot directed and there is a need for infrastructure to support the drone aircraft. It very well might be more cost-effective to use piloted aircraft for the mission. A conventional aircraft can be deployed from a support base and relocated as required as it does not need a fixed operational base.

We are not in the air intercept business anymore – but depending on future actions by the drug cartels we may be. If this is so and the Minotaur system is used in lieu of Long Endurance UAS then an APS 145 or equivalent radar could be placed on top of selected C-130J’s with a palletized mission system package to facilitate multiple mission capabilities.


If feasible, “piggy-backing” on selected existing assets, would cost considerably less than purchasing and operating shore-based UAS.

Time will tell. The UAS program will continue to be monitored for historical purposes.

Time will tell. Events are history only when aged by time. However, in this narrative the Coast Guard UAS program has been presented with future possibilities addressed so that the decisions of today will not be lost in the future.