Saildrone Wraps Up Successful MDA Demonstration for USCG

The USCG is examining the feasibility, costs, and benefits of using low-cost autonomous vehicles to provide persistent maritime domain awareness in remote areas of the ocean.

Throughout the month of October, Saildrone performed a 30-day proof-of-concept demonstration for the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to show how uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) could be used to provide persistent maritime domain awareness (MDA) at sea. Six saildrones were stationed in an operating area adjacent to Penguin Bank, west of Molokai, Hawaii.

“This mission had a large number of moving parts, but it was a huge success. Saildrone maintained the fleet at sea for four weeks, without incident, demonstrating a wide variety of real-world use cases,” said Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins. “We’re excited to collaborate with the US Coast Guard, demonstrating persistent maritime domain awareness in an operational environment.”

Watch footage of the Saildrone fleet operating in Hawaii.

MDA is the effective understanding of anything associated with the safety and security of the global maritime domain, including illegal fishing, drug enforcement, and limiting intrusion into protected areas. Congress has tasked the USCG with examining the feasibility, costs, and benefits of using a low-cost unmanned system to improve MDA in remote areas of the remote Pacific Ocean.

Each week of the exercise highlighted a specific real-world use case for persistent MDA: general traffic monitoring, illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, search and patrol, and port security.

Traffic monitoring

The first week focused on general traffic monitoring, with the USVs demonstrating various picket line formations, a range of detection types, and how detections are visualized. These demonstrations illustrated different use cases for real world examples.

Local boats were used as target vessels, sailing along and through the picket line of saildrones both with AIS on and off. The saildrone collection group also detected several targets of opportunity and established a baseline of vessel activity and pattern of life in the Penguin Bank area.

IUU fishing

The second week highlighted illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing includes activities conducted outside applicable regional and international laws and regulations, activities that are not reported or misreported to relevant authorities, and fishing for species for which there are no applicable conservation or management measures. 

The saildrones successfully detected and tracked the target vessels performing behaviors associated with IUU fishing, such as longline fishing at the edge of a restricted zone and turning off their automatic identification system (AIS), or going dark, while entering protected areas.

Fleet of Saildrone unmanned surface vehicles
The Saildrone fleet sailing south from Oahu, Hawaii.

Search and patrol

During the third week, the saildrone collection group performed search and patrol maneuvers. Saildrones have previously been used in the Bering Sea to find Alaska red king crab and track northern fur seals carrying acoustic transmitters. This exercise demonstrated how the effective coverage area of the fleet can be extended and the ability to find a dead-in-the-water target of interest.

Port security

The fourth and final week focused on port monitoring and surveillance. Saildrone recreated the layouts of high-traffic ports from around the world to show how the USVs could augment existing surveillance systems and detect suspicious behavior near critical infrastructure.

One of the examples highlighted how the USVs could be used as a tripwire to detect vessels sailing off course relative to known traffic patterns, which can lead to a situation like that of the MV Wakashio oil spill off the coast of Mauritius in July 2020.

Gen6 saildrone with masthead optical array
A Gen6 saildrone with masthead optical array sailing near Hawaii.

The Saildrone MDA solution consists of three parts: A 23-foot wind and solar-powered vehicle designed for long-duration missions at sea, an optical array with onboard GPU, and machine learning software that fuses the data from all sensors, recognizes targets of interest, and alerts the end-user in near real time.

Saildrone USVs are also equipped with a standard suite of oceanographic and meteorological sensors for continuous high-resolution environmental monitoring above and below the sea surface. Optional sensors include an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP), which could help to identify conditions in which a loitering vessel might drift into a protected area.

Saildrones are rugged and have a proven track record of performing long-duration missions in remote areas and extreme conditions. They have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, sailed up to the Arctic ice edge setting a northern latitude record of 75.49°N, and survived Southern Ocean storms to circumnavigate Antarctica. 

The robustness of the underlying core components, a wind-powered vehicle capable of long-duration missions, and a machine learning-based approach to vessel detection makes Saildrone an ideal solution for persistent maritime domain awareness in any ocean.

Read more: Combating IUU Fishing with Autonomous Vehicles

The United States Coast Guard and the Role of Autonomy at Sea

AI/ML Will Automate Maritime Domain Awareness

Saildrone Begins Demo of Autonomous MDA Capabilities for USCG

Eyes and Ears at Sea: US Coast Guard to Test Saildrone Autonomous MDA Capabilities


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