R and D Center Moving Coast Guard Into the Future

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Luke Pinneo

For many Coast Guard operational programs throughout New England, which range from improving search and rescue capabilities to developing anti-terrorism strategies, the first steps are taken at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center, located in New London, Conn.

With a staff of nearly 80 active duty military and civilian employees, including scientists and engineers, the RDC is the hub, test bed and think tank for projects and ideas that help the men and women of the Coast Guard perform their missions.

In the 21st century, the demands on the Coast Guard are heavy. In an age of increased threat of natural and man-made disasters, the Coast Guard, the smallest of branch of the military, has stood in the forefront as an always-ready force.

The RDC helps maintain that stance.

“Our main interest is increasing the capability of the Coast Guard,” said Capt. Matthew Sisson, the commanding officer of the RDC.

The challenge, he said, is doing so efficiently. He said the core components of the RDC’s mission – investigating new concepts, developing prototypes and testing them – is complex and expensive, and if not done right, a pitfall for waste.

“We could end up spending a lot of money and get no capability at all,” he said.

Faced with the need to equip the Coast Guard with the tools it needs and yet burdened with the inherent risk of wasting tax dollars, Sisson and his staff find elegant solutions by tapping into local sources.

Rather than hire outside contractors, which he said would cost several million dollars per project, he enlists the help of available Coast Guard units and personnel.

“I can say unequivocally that what we do is pennies on the dollar,” he said.

Testing projects at Coast Guard units not only costs less, but also allows the RDC to get qualified feedback from the end user.

“When you can get two people – the actual operator and the scientist – to come together, that’s when you’re going to get the best piece of equipment into the field,” said Petty Officer First Class Matthew Haggerty, a boat operator at Station Boston.

Haggerty is a participant in a Coast Guard terrorism-response pilot program in the port of Boston that began in the fall of 2006. The RDC’s role was to test and evaluate whether or not crew members can carry out their normal missions while wearing full-scale chemical and biological protective suits, masks, gloves and boots, specifically built for maritime environments.

Sisson’s staff worked with the station’s crew to build up their tolerance for wearing the gear in various environmental and operational conditions. They started in a classroom, learning about the gear, and eventually moved into a gym and played basketball in the suits. Over the course of the following months, they worked up to wearing the gear while underway, doing routine missions like at-sea rescues, law enforcement boardings, and simulated combat situations.

“We learned it’s doable, but pretty hard,” said Haggery. He said the biggest challenge each week was fitting it into an already full operational schedule.

But, he said, “I think it’s a necessary step for the Coast Guard to move toward in this era.”

Another step forward, that the RDC and Station Boston are taking together, is the testing of a mounted camera system aboard Coast Guard small boats.

Two cameras, one with a gyro-stabilizer and one without, were temporarily mounted on boats at Station Boston for two weeks apiece. Like the specialized suits, each camera was thoroughly used and evaluated by the crews underway.

Considering the range of missions that a unit like Station Boston performs, an onboard camera that can be controlled from inside the boat is valuable according to Haggerty.

He said the crews could use it as a training tool, like football teams, to capture footage of cases and training exercises. Once back at the station, they can review it and visually analyze their performance.

But he said the biggest benefit of the camera would be for law enforcement operations, especially those cases when the unfolding of events are called into question.

“You can’t dispute a video,” he said. “That’s why you see one in every cop car in America.”

Both Haggerty and Sisson agree it will be a long time before there is a camera mounted atop every Coast Guard boat.

But when the time comes in the future to implement a service-wide program, the groundwork will have already been laid, and because of the testing and partnership between the RDC and the station, Sisson said it can be done with minimal waste of both money and energy.

And energy, according to Sisson, is another major concern of the RDC.

“We’re very interested in looking at alternative energy sources,” he said.

He said he and his staff were trying to figure out how they could initiate a Coast Guard wide alternative energy program, when Capt. James McPherson, the commander at Sector Northern New England, contacted them with an idea of harnessing the power of the sea.

McPherson’s vision was to use the six knots of currents caused by the 20-foot tide in Eastport, Maine, to power the northern-most Coast Guard station on the East Coast there.

The RDC and sector created a framework for the project and secured $10,000, for collaboration with industry energy experts to develop and test in-stream generators as early as this summer. They announced their plan at a press conference in Portland, Maine, on Earth Day.

Sisson said he hopes the tidal power project will be a springboard for a Coast Guard alternative energy summit, and an opportunity to reflect on the service’s past and its plan for the future.

“We have a history of being independent,” he said. “As isolated as some of our stations have been, we have an institutional memory of being off the grid.”

Today, Sisson and the RDC team are looking ahead, exploring the use of tidal, wind, solar and geothermal energy to bring the Coast Guard full circle in being energy independent, and they are looking inward to test new technology and capabilities, to bring the service forward, at full speed, into the future.

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