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Harbor drone could be helping hand in disaster response

Dec. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
A University of Hawaii at Manoa student tests out the Unmanned Port Security Vessel in the Honolulu harbor.
A University of Hawaii at Manoa student tests out the Unmanned Port Security Vessel in the Honolulu harbor. (University of Hawaii)
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When disaster strikes, it helps to do a little recon before sending in the big guns. A harbor drone, in development at the University of Hawaii, could help the Coast Guard do just that, without risking personnel or stretching resources.

The Unmanned Port Security Vessel uses video and sonar gear and a mass spectrometer to analyze the shape, size and contents of hazardous materials from natural and environmental disasters.

“There’s interesting potential for a number of things, where it’s like, ‘Hey, a tsunami came through and we want to know, is the [port] channel open?’” said Lt. Jacob Paarlberg, Sector Honolulu Command Center chief. “Rather than driving a giant boat through there and hoping it is ... we could run this little unmanned port security vessel up, and it could see what’s on the bottom for us.”

The UPSV is 6 feet long by 4 ½ feet wide, weighs about 60 pounds and can travel up to 6 knots. It can be easily disassembled and flown via helo.

“One of the things the Coast Guard was interested in was to have something that they didn’t have to have at every port, but if something happened — for instance, here in Hawaii — if something happened over in Hilo, they could put it in a helicopter,” said Brian Bingham, the UPSV developer and a University of Hawaii mechanical engineering professor.

The UPSV’s main function is to collect data through sonar, Bingham said, which allows a response crew to get an idea of the size and shape of something like an oil spill. However, it can be customized for other missions.

“One of the things that’s interesting about the port security vessel is, it has the ability to swap out sensors, depending on what we’re looking for,” Paarlberg said.

Chemical sensors measure temperature, oxygen and salinity levels. A mass spectrometer can measure oil is in the water. And, Paarlberg said, it can take a sample of a chemical or oil spill and trace its path through the water, perhaps to the source of the leak.

The UPSV also has potential for security missions.

“If there’s a threat of an explosive or there’s a mysterious package on a pier, rather than putting anyone in harm’s way, this port vessel can drive up to it,” he said.

It operates in two modes, Bingham explained. The UPSV can either be programmed to go out to a site and collect data, or it can be remotely controlled to transmit visual and infrared video images back to station.

“One of the things that makes this kind of thing possible is that there’s just so many good oceanographic sensors out there, and this is a sort of low-cost, easily deployable pickup truck to move those sensors around and provide maps,” he said.

The idea came from a proposal Bingham and his colleagues submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Island, Maritime and Extreme Environment Security, an affiliate of the University of Hawaii.

CIMES and Sector Honolulu work together regularly, so the Coast Guard has offered feedback on what would make the drone a good fit for them.

The addition of visual and infrared video came straight from the Coasties, Bingham said.

Last spring, Bingham and his team signed a memorandum of understanding with the Battelle Memorial Institute, a research and development company that is examining the market, with an eye toward mass-producing the UPSV.

For now, Bingham said, the drone is still in development.

There’s no solid timeline for when it might be available to the Coast Guard, Paarlberg said.

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