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Mon, May 19, 2003

Civil Air Patrol Spots Cuban Refugees During Equipment Test Flight

Flight Crew Sends Digital Aerial Photos Via Satellite Phone E-Mail To Alert Coast Guard

While testing a new digital imaging system off the Florida Keys Apr. 25, a Civil Air Patrol flight crew spotted a raft carrying three Cuban refugees and helped direct the Coast Guard to a successful intercept.

Coast Guard Ensign Brett Workman said worsening weather approaching the Keys would have endangered the rafters’ lives had they not been picked up. “I credit the Civil Air Patrol with saving their lives,” said Workman, public affairs officer and Coast Guard auxiliary liaison in Key West (FL).

This Is A Test. This Is Not Only A Test

CAP’s Advanced Technologies Group was testing new technology its members are considering for homeland security and narco-terrorism reconnaissance flights. They were working with Raytheon Co. and the Coast Guard at the Key West station because that location, with its incidence of border violations and drug trafficking, offered a real-world environment for the testing.

CAP national headquarters staff members Terry Raymond and Rick McDow saw the 13-ft. raft (file photo, right) during a routine test flight on April 25. In previous tests, they had been using an airborne digital imaging system which allows a crew member to take photos with a high resolution digital camera and transmit them via satellite phone to any e-mail address anywhere in the world while still airborne. While their flight that day did not involve tests on that system, they still had it installed and operational on their Cessna 206. “I looked down and saw what appeared to be a dark gray raft carrying people,” Raymond said. “The Coast Guard had briefed us that the area we were searching could be part of an escape route for Cuban refugees, so I immediately thought of that. Even though I wasn’t in the right position for taking photos, I grabbed the camera and got the best shots possible.”

Using the test equipment, Raymond immediately transferred his digital images of the raft onto the onboard laptop computer. He then used the ARNAV RCOM-100 satellite phone and Globalstar network to transmit the photos by e-mail to the Coast Guard. He was able to get the high-resolution photos of the raft to authorities within two minutes and was also able to talk with authorities over the same phone line.

Stay There - We're Coming

The Coast Guard requested that the CAP aircraft remain onsite immediately dispatched a cutter to intercept the refugees. The CAP crew took additional photos of the intercept. The three refugees were uninjured and eventually were repatriated to Cuba.

CAP and Raytheon had just concluded a formal presentation of the equipment the day before for high-ranking military officials, including General Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and commander of the US Northern Command, Peterson AFB (C0). During that presentation, an airborne CAP flight crew was able to take and transmit a clear digital photo of a surface ship spotted on radar within minutes, via e-mail, using a satellite telephone link from a laptop computer in the aircraft to Raytheon’s First Responder and other computers on the ground.

“This technology significantly improves CAP’s capabilities in reconnaissance as well as search and rescue,” said Col. Drew Alexa, who heads CAP’s Advanced Technologies Group. “The equipment is far less bulky than our older photography systems. With this new digital imaging system, we need only carry a digital camera, a laptop and the system itself. The whole system weighs only about 12 pounds.”

No Fuss, No Muss

Alexa says the new technology is also important because it eliminates the need for each CAP mission flight to have a ground crew waiting with special equipment to receive the images. “With our older medium-resolution video imaging systems, we had to have a ground crew within the proper proximity of the aircraft to receive the images from the plane and transmit them to the waiting customer. Since the ARNAV system uses e-mail and high-resolution digital camera technology, we can send better photos in a shorter period of time directly to the customer’s e-mail address. Essentially we’re cutting out the middle man in the transmission.”

Alexa and his team researched the ARNAV system and its ability to link with the Nikon CoolPix 5700 digital cameras and standard laptop computers commonly used by CAP units in the field. As a result of the successful tests, CAP hopes to purchase several of the new digital imaging systems for its eight regions within the United States, with additional purchases expected in the future.

CAP is also working with Raytheon Co. to field test the company’s High Frequency Surface Wave Radar. Ultimately, suspected targets will be identified with this new highly accurate radar and a probable location called in to a CAP aircraft. The plane will then proceed to the location and its crew will take high-res photos of the target and transmit them to the ground within minutes.

“Our Advanced Technologies Group was able to identify the best equipment on the market today, figure out how it could work with our existing equipment and set up very high-profile field testing – all in the space of about three months,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Bowling, CAP national commander. “This couldn’t have happened without effective teamwork among the CAP volunteers in the field, technical reps for the equipment manufacturer and operations and logistics personnel from our national headquarters. It’s testimony to the power of teamwork in meeting a pressing need – the need for safety and security – in our country today.”



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