Coast Guard considering drones to watch long coastlines

The Coast Guard is exploring the possibility of deploying unmanned "drone" aircraft to monitor coastlines that go largely unwatched, the service's head of vessel inspections said Friday.

The planes would be able to linger over stretches of coast and improve the tracking of small vessels under 300 gross tons that are largely below the threshold of Coast Guard attention, Rear Adm. Brian Salerno said at a breakfast meeting held by the National Defense University Foundation.

Salerno did not offer any details of what a drone-based surveillance and detection network might look like or how exactly the planes would be deployed.

The United States has 95,000 miles of coast line that is essentially an international border, Salerno said. That border, however, is not protected equally. Security is relatively robust at the nation's larger ports, but remains "spotty" along other coastal areas, he said.

Vessels weighing more than 300 gross tons are covered by an electronic tracking system that relays location information when they are in U.S. ports. An international agreement calls for the same system to enable tracking of those ships at longer ranges off national coasts by the end of 2008.

The 8,000 smaller foreign vessels that make about 60,000 U.S. port calls a year, as well as the 17 million recreational boats in the United States, come and go largely unseen unless an aircraft or Coast Guard boat happens to be in the vicinity, Salerno said.

"What we do not have is full coverage," he said. "We have very spotty coverage as far as ships that are operating along our coasts that are below the [300-ton] threshold."

Such vessels could carry nuclear substances or other dangerous material, transport terrorists seeking to enter the United States, or even be used as weapons themselves as in the 2000 suicide bombing against the USS Cole, Salerno said.

The "visibility" of small vessels is not adequate, he said. "We have some maritime domain awareness gaps. There are some things we don't see," Salerno said. "If it's occurring outside a port area we probably won't see it."

Salerno's comments come a few weeks after Vayl Oxford, head of the Homeland Security Department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, said his agency was planning a shift away from a port-centric attention to maritime shipping containers.

In terms of a possible avenue for terrorists to deliver a nuclear or radiological device to U.S. soil, small seagoing vessels and small general-aviation aircraft represent a concern and will become a growing focus, he said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.