Early on a weekday morning, with fog starting to set in and the weather rapidly degrading, a group gathered inside a windowless room at the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in New London, Conn., for a show of hands. When all was said and done, the safety officer tallied the vote and announced the results: “We’re a go.”
The scene was similar to other operations where a risk analysis is performed, looking at pitfalls and challenges, and above all, where safety matters most. It was a fitting exercise, as the objective was the testing of a new Maritime Object Tracking Technology, or MOTT. The fact that the Coast Guard center puts this much attention on safety and resources for a brief test makes a sobering point about how much time and energy they must spend preparing for complicated missions including search-and-recovery at sea.
The MOTT looks something like a small, handheld pool torpedo. Weighing in at 4 pounds, it’s made from bright orange high-density polyethylene and has an aluminum tip. Earlier in the prototyping stage, which involved the U.S. Navy, several different shapes were developed and produced on 3-D printers before the current design was settled upon. On the top, a clear plastic dome encases a strobe beacon, and a few strands of bright yellow lobster warp are attached for easier retrieval.
The purpose of the MOTT is to track maritime objects, and that’s a bit of an open-ended task, since the center is developing the technology in-house for use across all military services. If deployed from a helicopter, the MOTT could be dropped into an oil slick and located from its AIS signal. Debris fields, narcotics and other floating detritus could also be marked, and the MOTT would move along with the current until another asset could arrive on-site. In addition to these and the obvious MOB situation, the MOTT fits within the Coast Guard’s 11 Mission Objectives.
“There was a niche need for this type of technology. When tracking maritime objects, there’s a limited number of tools available,” said Lt. Joseph DiRenzo, the public affairs officer at the center, who has been involved throughout the year-long MOTT development process to date.
Each Mott unit is expected to cost the government $500, placing it between cheap ring buoys and $3,000 data buoys, which may or may not ever be recovered. The ultimate goal is to be able to deploy the MOTT from a Coast Guard helicopter traveling 500 feet above the water.
The Coast Guard plans to conduct that test in May at Sector San Diego, but first had to learn if the MOTTs would survive a 200-foot drop from the Gold Star Memorial Bridge that connects Interstate 95 and crosses the Thames River in Connecticut.
Taking advantage of the bridge construction lane closures, one Coast Guard team including the center’s Commanding Officer Capt. Dennis C. Evans brought 15 MOTTs halfway across the span and tossed them off the bridge once they got the all-clear from a pair of 45-foot Coast Guard response boats blocking the channel on the north and south sides.
Adding a level of complexity, the U.S. Navy was conducting training exercises and their patrol boats were also transiting near the bridge pilings. With visibility less than a half-mile, a shore-based observation crew, had their work cut out trying to watch the entire operation.
When all was said and done, 15 MOTTs were tossed from the bridge, splashes were observed, and eight were recovered. Not all the MOTTs survived the drop, and others possibly were sucked into the unique undercurrent in the Thames.
Although it was somewhat disappointing that all 15 didn’t perform flawlessly, the data collected will allow the team to make improvements after a test debriefing.
If the team at the center succeeds, then by the end of this fiscal year, the MOTT will be in the national inventory ready to mark maritime objects in real time.