Tech Transfer Stars: Derek Meier’s RDC Work Helps Accelerate Acceptance of Autonomous Technology for USCG Missions

Tech Transfer Stars: Derek Meier’s RDC Work Helps Accelerate Acceptance of Autonomous Technology for USCG Missions

June 26, 2023

Tech Transfer Stars highlights those making a difference in the federal tech transfer community. This week's Tech Transfer Star is Derek Meier, a Research Engineer with the United States Coast Guard Research and Development Center, within the Department of Homeland Security. Earlier this month, Meier was named 2023 Outstanding Technology Transfer Professional for the FLC’s Northeast Region.

What is the importance of technology transfer within the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (USCG RDC)? 
Technology transfer is a primary goal of all our research efforts. Being the sole research and development center for the USCG, we strive to perform meaningful, relevant and impactful research to those who serve. Our goal is to provide all sponsors and stakeholders with products and prototypes to aid in transferring technologies. 

What does a typical “day at the office” look like for you as a Research Engineer at the USCG RDC?
I don’t think I have ever had a typical day at the office in the four years I have worked at the RDC! The motto of our center is “the field is our laboratory,” meaning we spend much of our time out in the field with our operators, evaluating technologies. In addition to working in the field, I spend much of my time evaluating autonomy on our vessels, designing sensor suites and performing project management tasks. 

What do you love about your job?
I think what I love most about my job is the level of involvement I have in each step of the research. Our center is made up of just under 100 personnel including the support and command structure, which is a relatively small number compared with other laboratories. Despite this, the center is executing the evaluation of roughly 50 projects at any given time! When executing projects, we typically work in small teams, so every member is heavily involved in the project execution and results. You take a project from the design phase all the way to the final prototype – I think this is the dream for every engineer. 

What do you wish more people knew about autonomous technology for maritime applications?
One of the common misconceptions we get about autonomous surface vessels is that they will replace USCG operators in the future. This is absolutely not the case! In our research we aim to find ways that autonomy could lessen the burden on operators or augment current USCG mission sets. For example, one avenue of our research is to execute search and rescue patterns with our autonomous vessels. All of the autonomous vessels at our center are optionally crewed – meaning they can either be piloted at the helm or remotely through a computer. When a crew is on board, the autonomous execution of a search and rescue mission allows that crew to focus less on piloting the vessel and more on the search. Additionally, many other dirty, dull and dangerous missions that historically have been performed by personnel could be performed using autonomous vessels. This could reduce personnel fatigue and risk, saving the crew for those missions that require manned intervention while underway. 

The RDC recently hosted a meeting of the FLC Northeast Region. What did you enjoy most about having that opportunity to interact with other tech transfer professionals from your region? 
It was incredible to hear about the ongoing research of other federal laboratories. I especially appreciated hearing about ongoing struggles in other areas of research and found much of it relatable. Difficulties with approvals, acquisition requirements and funding seem universal across the federal laboratory environments.

One highlight of that event for you had to be receiving recognition as the region’s Outstanding Technology Transfer Professional. What does that award mean to you? 
It was an absolute honor to be recognized by the FLC, especially at such an early point in my career. I made the transition to the government workforce by joining the RDC in 2019, so achieving this award early on in my career reinforced the value of the research I am performing.

Your nomination for that award described your work on a project that involved converting a USCG boat so that it could be piloted remotely. What can you tell us about the importance of technology transfer in making that project a success? 
Technology transfer actually was the inspiration for this most recent project. We wanted to give a USCG cutter an autonomous vessel that they could deploy while underway. The term "cutter" within the USCG is any vessel that measures 65’ or longer in length. The first step to executing this project was installing an autonomous control system on a cutter boat. Cutter boats are smaller vessels that are designed to be launched and recovered from cutters at sea and perform a variety of missions. Converting an asset that was already designed for USCG interoperability was a key factor in selecting this vessel for conversion. 

Autonomous technology has the potential to be a game-changer for maritime operations, both for the USCG and for commercial users. What’s it like for you to be involved with that technology at such an exciting time? 
Being involved in this technology at such a pivotal time has allowed for our research to move at a rapid pace. With autonomy being developed by both industry and government facilities, the cutting edge of this technology is constantly being pushed; more importantly, it has allowed these systems to become more agnostic. Many of today’s autonomous systems are capable of being retrofitted to existing vessels, which for us has been a game changer in accelerating our research. Designing an autonomous vessel from the ground up would have delayed our research significantly.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to the tech transfer profession?
I think the best advice would be to be persistent, be patient and don’t go it alone. All these efforts require the support of a team. My research would not have been possible without the help of my peers supporting the planning and testing of our autonomous vessels.