Protecting and Preserving Our Oceans by Seeing at Sea Through Remotely Piloted Aircraft


The oceans are a priceless treasure essential for life, trade, leisure, and more – but they can’t look after themselves.

Piracy, smuggling, pollution, overfishing, and other problems not only threaten the health of the global commons but often human lives afloat and ashore, too. That’s why maritime domain awareness and maritime security are essential everywhere, including – and especially – on the high seas outside of nations’ territorial waters or economic zones.

Even paradise isn’t safe.

More than 100,000 pounds of derelict fishing equipment – often called “ghost nets” – drifts from the open Pacific Ocean into the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument every year off the coast of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Marine mammals, sea birds, and other local creatures lose their lives in this flotsam and jetsam. Their habitats are imperiled.

But how can fish and wildlife and environmental enforcement officials keep tabs on the entry of debris into an ocean preserve larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined?

One answer is with remotely piloted aircraft systems.

NASA has used an MQ-9-model remotely piloted aircraft, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor wildlife and search for debris in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

UAS are ideal for maritime domain awareness

Missions like these are growing in frequency and importance as remotely piloted aircraft expand their roles into missions all across the world’s oceans. Many of these areas aren’t only ungoverned; they’re remote and geographically vast. Only the most capable and specialized solutions can help ocean-friendly and law-abiding institutions monitor the sea to help protect it.

Perhaps no one system epitomizes this better than the MQ-9B SeaGuardian®, a multi-mission remotely piloted aircraft that is revolutionizing maritime operations around the world, from naval combat to customs enforcement to border security to ecological support and more.

The aircraft, a newer version of the one used by NASA and the other agencies in Hawaii, is purpose-built to deliver high-quality maritime domain awareness so that responsible governments can quickly know and act.

Nations need to know what vessels are off their shores, the activities they are engaged in, from where and when they arrived, and where they are headed. They also must know what’s taking place farther out to sea, both for security reasons and as part of a growing international effort to protect international maritime laws and norms.

Harmful fishing threatens world nutrition

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, for example, is a growing concern as groups of large vessels stray farther into international or other nations’ fisheries. This destructive activity depletes a vital world resource – global seafood stocks – while simultaneously often involving exploitive or forced labor by those who take part.

Responsible nations are searching for ways to crack down and stop it.

This summer, for example, the White House issued a national security memorandum outlining the problems posed by IUU fishing and directing agencies to begin working on ways to tackle it. This could include agencies or offices that operate far away from the continental United States. Take West Africa, as an example, where IUU fishing off the coast is a major problem. Agencies there could work collaboratively with local and international authorities to bring violators to justice.

The SeaGuardian is tailor-made for this and other missions. With 30 hours or more of endurance, it can cover long distances en route to patrol areas and then spend more time covering them than any human-flown aircraft. Its onboard sensors and a library of interchangeable payloads mean it can provide highly detailed insights about what it finds.

The aircraft’s electro-optical/infrared sensor feeds full-motion video at any time of the day or night; and its Lynx® Multi-mode Radar provides synthetic aperture radar images that see through haze, mist, or smoke. SeaGuardian also is attuned to the international Automatic Identification System (AIS) through which many vessels broadcast details about themselves. And with a 360-degree maritime search radar carried under the centerline, the MQ-9B provides high-quality situational awareness about large areas as nothing else can.

MQ-9B is the newest member of a family of aircraft proven over decades and millions of hours of safe operation around the world, much of it in combat. Unlike those earlier aircraft, however, the SeaGuardian is purpose designed to fly in virtually any weather conditions, endure lightning, and take off or land at many more different airfields thanks to its longer wingspan.

In its SkyGuardian® configuration, MQ-9B also is the only aircraft of its kind to integrate into civil airspace just like traditional aircraft with pilots aboard. The SkyGuardian’s unique Detect and Avoid System allows it to stay apprised of other traffic nearby as well or better than a conventional aircraft. Operators talk with air traffic control officials over the radio as normal. Here the UK’s national air traffic control authority described how it accommodated the Royal Air Force’s version of the MQ-9B, known as the Protector RG Mk1.

Advanced software supports state-of-the-art aircraft

The capabilities the aircraft offers for maritime domain awareness go far beyond its advanced navigation, endurance, and sensing equipment. Manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. also supplies the world’s most sophisticated operating and exploitation software with the aircraft.

Via artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other advantages, users can unlock the full potential of what the hardware can do in ways of special interest to maritime authorities and others.

Coast guard or other agencies don’t need to employ an army of technicians to search through a stack of encyclopedias to find what they want. Instead, the system, known as STARE, serves as a cross between a search engine – delivering quick, intuitive, and easy access – and a social network feed, automatically pushing key insights to the users who need them.

Suppose a SeaGuardian detects a vessel using its onboard sensors but does not receive an AIS signal from that same contact. Ships engaged in unlawful or suspicious activity sometimes switch off their AIS transceivers, but the SeaGuardian and its support software could automatically call this to the attention of human operators.

Or imagine that a SeaGuardian detects two ships in very close proximity – vessels that might be pumping oil from one to another in violation of international sanctions or which might be shipping contraband. The aircraft would alert human authorities, and then its operators could use it to take a close look at what’s taking place with radar and optical sensing. Next, they could zoom in on the ships’ fantails so authorities could read their names.

Sometimes the requirements are simpler: authorities might simply want to stay with a vessel, or a group of vessels, for a long time to see where it goes. Human-piloted patrol aircraft don’t have the endurance to keep up.

Other downward-looking surveillance can only check in periodically. But SeaGuardian can stay with the target for extended periods because its endurance is measured in days and not hours. And when aircraft are working in teams and one can relieve another in regularly scheduled intervals, authorities are able to maintain continuous contact with the target, increasing the certainty of arrest and prosecution for those involved in nefarious activity.

With insights like these about precisely where, when, and what is happening anywhere at sea, authorities – namely navies, customs enforcement agencies, search and rescue teams, or other similar entities – are best equipped to move and act.

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