US Navy considering use of UAVs for man-overboard situations

Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Keithley poses for a photo holding an unmanned aerial vehicle at the Kawanui Model Airplane Field in Kailua. Photo: US Navy

The U.S. Navy is looking at the possibility of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for man-overboard situations in which the UAVs would help keep a visual on the sailor in the water.

According to the Naval Safety Center, since 2006 more than 110 sailors and marines have fallen overboard, and eight lost their lives.

Operating during rough seas and low visibility increases the risk of someone going overboard, and at the same time, is the most difficult time to maintain a visual on the Sailor.

“Being on the sail of a sub during a night transit in stormy weather made me think about what if someone were to fall overboard, how hard would it be turn around and find them,” said Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Keithley, attached to Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (SUBPAC). “As a submarine officer I have done numerous man-overboard drills at sea where I gained an appreciation for the difficulty in keeping track of low profile objects in even the calmest of seas. It was this background that I brought to one of our innovation Lab [iLab] events where the discussion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) occurred.”

According to Keithley, iLab is an unclassified space to prototype current commercial technologies to generate ideas for low-cost solutions to fleet training and operational challenges.

iLab is part of The Bridge Program, a Pacific Fleet owned program, that encourages innovation by providing sailors of all paygrades an avenue to pitch ideas to top Navy officers and is intended to improve procedures and equipment used in the fleet.

“My UAV concept isn’t meant to replace current man-overboard procedures but work with them,” said Keithley. “Because of this program, I was able to present my idea and hopefully contribute to solving this challenge.”

During the initial proof of concept pilot program event, which ran from December 2015 – February 2016, Keithley and his team from iLab came together to develop their plan and pitch their idea.

“I may have started the conversation but the idea germinated after back and forth discussions with innovative members of the SUBPAC staff and demonstrations of technology displayed in our iLab,” said Keithley. “After seeing what UAVs and current camera technologies were capable of, I thought of how relatively easy it could be to create a man-overboard spotter UAV which could help recovery vessels vector in on Sailors in the water. I know that I, for one, would have loved to have as much cuing information as possible to help a shipmate adrift during an overboard recovery.”

His team consisted of Geoff Moss, SUBPAC science advisor, Chris Bretz, SUBPAC innovation advisor, Ted Ralston, director of Unmanned Aerial Systems at the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Hawai’i, who provided the UAV for both the demonstration and prop for the pitch.

During a live three-hour rapid innovation workshop in February called “The Pitch,” Keithley and his team presented their idea to a panel of mentors, or “Lookouts.” Their UAV idea was one of 8 pitches presented that day.

“The Bridge is encouraging because it shows great ideas can go somewhere,” said Keithley. “A lot of times, Sailors come up with great ideas but they go nowhere, but being able to see your idea moving forward and being heard; seeing the visibility and possible development of your idea is pretty amazing.”

Keithley and his team’s UAV idea was selected as one of the four ideas to move on to the annual U.S. Pacific Command Pacific Operational Science and Technology (POST) conference the following month and spent the following two weeks refining their idea and prototype, meeting with mentors and practicing their pitch.

At POST, they presented their idea to senior officers and executives from commands throughout the Pacific and were selected as the winning idea to be presented at the next PACFLT Commander’s Conference in June. The PACFLT “Bridge” team will use the feedback provided at POST and the Commander’s Conference to move his idea towards reality.

 

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