KEY WEST -- On the flight deck of the HSV 2 Swift, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris received instructions Friday on how to launch the 13-pound drone that looks like a model airplane built by a teenager in the family garage.
“Raise it when we’re ready,” a civilian operator told the commander of the U.S. 4th Fleet. “It’s a piece of cake.”
Harris did as told, launching the Puma AE (all environment) — a waterproof, unmanned aircraft — into the vast blue yonder of the Florida Straits to track and provide real-time video of a go-fast boat in a mock drug smuggling operation.
“So easy, even an admiral can do it,” Harris joked.
It was a test to see if the relatively low-cost drone, which runs on battery power, could be an alternative to manned aircraft such as the P-3 Orion, which requires a crew of seven and guzzles fuel.
The Navy is trying to get creative to continue its never-ending war on drugs during these tough economic times, in which its budget has been further squeezed by new mandatory cuts triggered by the recent federal sequester.
In March, the Navy announced the budget cuts were forcing it to stop the deployments of two of its frigates, the USS Gary and the USS Thach, that were patrolling the Caribbean and eastern Pacific for traffickers of drugs, people and guns.
“It’s the old saying attributed to Mr. [Winston] Churchill: ‘We’ve run out of money; it’s time to think,’ ” Harris said.
That’s why the 321-foot Swift also was carrying an unusual sight for a ship — a big white blimp that was moored next to the big X that marks the spot for helicopter landings.
This TIF-25K Tethered Aerostat had no markings on it because it was used for military operations in Afghanistan. But with the draw down of missions in that war, the military wants to find ways to repurpose the unmanned blimps that run on helium.
“We’ve only been at sea once before, and that was on a barge in one of the Great Lakes,” said Craig P. Laws, the U.S. Navy program manager for Raven Inc., the blimp’s private manufacturer based in South Dakota. “We used it for a scientific experiment, watching algae grow with a university. Flying from the flight deck of a Navy ship is new to us.”
While blimps and remote controlled airplanes have been around for decades; never before have they been combined for this sort of mission at sea. Part of the reason: the technology has greatly advanced (also becoming smaller and lighter) for the cameras, sensors and communication equipment they carry. “And obviously, necessity is the mother of invention,” Harris said.
It’s still a work in progress, but Harris is excited about the potential of the blimp and drone. Vessels like the Swift can increase its small boat detection capabilities from about five miles with its onboard radar, to 50 miles or so when the blimp and its F50 radar is raised to its maximum height of about 2,000 feet. The blimp also has a camera that can capture footage up to 15 miles away for big vessels.
And, weather permitting, the blimp can supply 24/7 monitoring. The P-3 must return within 10 hours for refueling and change of crews. The downside: there’s nobody armed in the blimp and drone that can force the smugglers to stop.