Drone exercise tests Coast Guard's Arctic rescue capabilities

Somewhere among ridges of sea ice, more than 20 miles from shore in the Arctic waters off Alaska's northern coast, an orange six-person raft is floating. But instead of a person, the small vessel's passenger is a thermal dummy, designed to emit a human heat signature.

In the gray sky 500 feet above, an unmanned aircraft flies a search pattern, scanning the Beaufort Sea for signs of the simulated sinking survivor. Operators of the Puma drone, working from an installation at Oliktok Point and also aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, monitor live feeds from the aircraft's camera and from its infrared sensors.

The rescuers-in-training look for signs of the lifeboat they know is out there.

Spotting the speck of orange amid the white ice and dark patches of open water proves difficult, but after concerted efforts, operators vector the drone to the raft's coordinates and, once the drone is above it, the raft appears on the search-and-rescue team's monitor.

Two helicopters stationed at the Arctic Shield forward operating location in Deadhorse are dispatched to the location, and Coast Guard personnel rappel down to recover the mock survivor.

This unusual search-and-rescue exercise, conducted last month, was the product of collaboration between the Coast Guard, Sandia National Laboratory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which lent the Puma drone for the operation, ConocoPhillips, Boeing subsidiary Insitu, and Era Helicopters.

"What was good about this exercise was the cooperation with industry, which is unusual because we regulate industry," said Scot Tripp, a lead scientist for the Coast Guard's Research and Development Center.

Tripp said the "scarcity of assets in the area" has led the Coast Guard to the conclusion it may need to rely on private companies to help respond to emergencies.

Despite growing attention to Alaska's Arctic waters, the Coast Guard still does not station vessels in the area year-round. The Healy, a polar research icebreaker, is the only Coast Guard ship operating regularly in the frigid waters during summer.

After the search-and-rescue exercise, the Coast Guard's Research and Development Center ordered its own Puma unmanned aircraft at a cost of $800,000.

"[The Puma] is a research asset, and we are using it and other UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) to support our investigations of small UAS applicability for a variety of Coast Guard missions," Tripp said.

One challenge to integrating drones into Coast Guard activities -- such as search and rescue -- or deploying them for commercial missions is the lack of a comprehensive regulatory regime, Tripp said.

"The [Federal Aviation Administration] is still getting used to how to regulate unmanned aircraft," he said.

To have more freedom during the operation, the Coast Guard applied to use a special strip of airspace managed by Sandia National Laboratories for research. Warning Area W-220 spans a 40-mile-wide and 700-mile-long stretch of airspace over the Beaufort Sea, and when it is activated, pilots in the area are notified not to breach the warning area's coordinates due to potential aerial hazards.