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Coast Guard: No rules on use of underwater drones in the bay

Waterman David Haas was crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay on Nov. 5 when he came across this underwater drone operated by Northrop Grumman.
Waterman David Haas was crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay on Nov. 5 when he came across this underwater drone operated by Northrop Grumman.(Courtesy of Laurie Haas)

The Coast Guard has no rules to govern the operation of underwater drones in the Chesapeake Bay, a spokesman said Friday, but it does try to keep track of who is using unmanned submarines in U.S. waters.

Most of the interest in drones has focused on their use in the sky. But this month, a waterman found a drone that defense contractor Northrop Grumman was using to conduct sonar research — a reminder that they can be used underwater as well.

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The freedom of unmanned systems to move through the water is in stark contrast to the restrictions on their use in the sky. The Federal Aviation Administration has imposed strict rules on commercial drone pilots and hobbyists in an attempt to prevent the unmanned aircraft from colliding with other air traffic.

Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer David Marin said the agency does ask the operators of unmanned submarines to send information about their plans in advance.

"They'll contact us and let us know, and we'll put out a message to mariners," he said.

The Coast Guard asks for information on the date and time a drone will be used, where it's going to operate and a description of the craft in case it gets lost, Marin said.

Marin said he could not immediately provide details on how many people are using drones in the bay, or how often.

David Haas was out with his crew crabbing near the Bay Bridge on Nov. 5 when he encountered the 6- to 7-foot-long torpedo-shaped craft, his wife said.

"It was super foggy the day they discovered this thing," Laurie Haas said. "They almost hit it with the boat.

"They didn't know what it was because it was such a bright color yellow."

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Figuring the object was valuable, the crew pulled it onto their boat to see if they could reunite it with its owner. Davis Haas stashed the drone in his shed back home.

"I couldn't wait to see it when I got home," Laurie Haas said. "This was the catch of a lifetime."

The drone had the name "Hydroid" stamped on the side — Hydroid is a division of the Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime. One of Haas' crew called the company, Laurie Haas said, and word got from there back to Northrop Grumman.

It turned out that a team from Northrop Grumman had spent four or five hours searching the bay for the lost drone. Laurie Haas said the company's representative "was so relieved when he called us."

Pictures of the drone identify it as a Remus model, which Kongsberg markets for a variety of military, research and commercial applications.

Kongsberg says it received funding from the Office of Naval Research to develop the craft.

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A Northrop Grumman spokesman said Thursday that the company was using the drone for sonar research but declined to elaborate.

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