Coast Guard Research and Development Center to celebrate 50th anniversary

The Day

Erica Moser

December 28, 2022


When Bert Macesker traces the history of the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center, it’s with an eye on its response to world events: how the RDC responded in the 80s to increased drug smuggling, in the 90s to the Exxon Valdez oil spill and in the 2000s to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

“In our history, there’s a lot of seminal events, because we are a very reactionary organization,” said Macesker, who has worked at the RDC for 30 years and now serves as executive director. Sometimes that meant halting its routine portfolio and taking half or more of the staff to focus on these events.

The Coast Guard commandant established the RDC on Sept. 1, 1972, and the center plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023 ― from an open house with virtual reality demonstrations to the publication of a history book and the release of a new challenge coin.

“Back in the 70s, it was using magnetic compasses and celestial navigation, and it was way off-course,” Macesker said. “But what’s interesting is you have more computing power and navigation power in your iPhone than they ever had back in the 70s on these boats.”

The center has delivered nearly 2,000 research products that support the 11 missions of the Coast Guard: port and waterway security, drug interdiction, aids to navigation, search and rescue, living marine resources, marine safety, defense readiness, migrant interdiction, marine environmental protection, ice operations and law enforcement.

The center began at an interim facility at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton and has since moved to the Fort Trumbull area in New London. The Coast Guard says the center now employs 82 people, which is far fewer than its peak.

Macesker said Mark Snell, chief historian of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, will be coming out with a book early next year that delves into the historical context of the RDC and its people.

The RDC said in a press release that an open house in March will highlight research in search and rescue, next generation buoys, and polar technologies.

Responding to major events over the decades

A big area of work in the 1970s, Macesker said, was the Fire and Safety Test Detachment in Mobile, Ala. A 1978 article from The Day said the fire test installation “is in the business of kindling fires and explosions aboard ships to test ways of containing and extinguishing fires. The Coast Guard believes it is the only such installation in the world.”

The Coast Guard also worked in the 70s to develop “oil fingerprinting,” a technique to identify the origins of oil in a spill.

In the 80s, the RDC helped deploy dirigible blimps with radar amid increased offshore drug smuggling, saved the Coast Guard money by making aids to navigation solar powered, and evaluated the Island-class patrol boat, a new class of cutter.

Following the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, giving the RDC work on how to prevent and contain future oil spills.

Macesker said the center studied tanker designs and spill containment technologies, developed an approach for testing fire-resistant oil booms that ended up being helpful in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, and created guides “for addressing crew endurance, because fatigue was a big issue.”

The next decade brought a focus on coastal surveillance, following 9/11. U.S. Coast Guard operations moved from the Department of Transportation to Department of Homeland Security in 2003, and the RDC moved from Groton to New London in 2009. But Macesker said the lease will be up in a few years.

“I just don’t know if we’re going to necessarily renew our lease, but I think the hope would be that we would be sticking around in southeastern Connecticut, because we just have a good thing here, with our partners,” he said. Those partners include the Army National Guard, UConn, and of course the Coast Guard Academy, whose cadets do senior capstone projects and internships with the RDC.

On the research side, much of the focus now is on artificial intelligence and robotics.

“Some of the fascinating things that I think are going to be gamechangers for us and the service are unmanned systems technology,” Macesker said. He said there’s a demand for unmanned systems in the air that would allow for Coast Guard operations much further from cutters or stations.

The RDC is also working on the next generation of aids to navigation, technologies in response to oil spills, and improving communications in the higher latitudes, work that is being done with Starlink, the satellite internet constellation from SpaceX.

Also in the past decade, the Coast Guard opened a Science and Technology Innovation Center at the RDC, which Macesker said departs from the traditional years-long timeframe of research and development and instead rapidly adapts existing technologies and getting them into the field.

Click here to view this article as it originally appeared on The Day website.