Field testing small unmanned air systems (UAS) in marine oil spill response exercises began in 2006. Soon afterward there were multiple credible examples where uas's could complement the traditional roles which manned aircraft filled for oil spill observation.

Testing stopped abruptly in 2007 when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration changed rules for the commercial use of uas's. Testing resumed in 2013 after the U.S. Congress mandated that the FAA finalize operating rules for uas commercial use. Exercise tests validated oil spill observation by uas's when an experienced aerial oil spill observer confirmed that properly equipped uas platforms and cameras could offer results equal to manned aircraft flights.

Today there are a much wider variety of uas's and increasingly more capable sensors which can be utilized for creating highly detailed maps or data collection for geographic information system applications such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA).

Radio technology advances have also improved the ability to transfer video/data over greater distance and faster speeds than initial tests. Mobile ad hoc networks of multiple radios can transfer uas data streams beyond line of sight and connect with the internet for even broader distribution. This same network can also be used by responders in the field to exchange video, voice and location data and be linked real time with command post map displays and data feeds creating a true common operating picture across the entire response effort.

From an organizational perspective, uas's are not discussed in the 2014 USCG Incident Management Handbook. Despite this however, their activities need coordinated with manned aircraft through Air Operations for regulations and safety. Staging them at airports serves little purpose given their flexibility and small size. Better utilization would be achieved placing the uas and operators near the command posts or at staging sites alongside the boats or vehicles they would work from. Their unique differences would also support creating a UAS Group Supervisor in Air Operations to clarify their requirements and tasking. The Situation Unit would typically be the best central receiving point for incoming data and from there aerial observers and data specialists can route video / data to operations, gis users and display operators managing the common operating picture.

Additional topics for final presentation:

  • *See and avoid capabilities

  • *Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) transmitters/receivers

  • *Night flights approval

  • *New operator regulations not requiring pilot's license

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