Coast Guard men and women awarded patent for innovative solution

Five members of the Coast Guard were awarded a patent earlier this year for their design as part of a senior design capstone project at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Five members of the Coast Guard were awarded a patent earlier this year for their design as part of a senior design capstone project at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Lt. Heather Bacon-Shone

Coast Guard men and women are always coming up with innovative ways to solve the service’s challenges. But it’s not every day that a group of young junior officers — and their former cadet advisor — find themselves U.S. Patent holders for their invention.

In 2011, for their senior-year capstone project, four Coast Guard Academy cadets majoring in mechanical engineering – Alex Brown, Tom Morrow, Trent Meyers, and Katie Spira – took on the flare tube launcher challenge. The Casa HC-144 Ocean Sentry airplane uses a flare tube launching system that drops a flare with the push of a button – extremely useful for marking positions during search and rescue operations.

But the existing design was flawed. The single-piece tube and base had to be removed in order to reconfigure the aircraft for other missions, which often happened two or three times a day. The expensive tube system was prone to damage during the complex, time-consuming removal process, which took over forty minutes and required a number of different tools. With operations demanding rapid and reliable reconfiguration of the aircraft, the current system was calling out for improvement.

The capstone project grew out of a summer cadet internship at Aviation Logistics Center. As it happened, the topic was a great fit for the cadets’ capstone advisor, Capt. Chip Hatfield, an aeronautical engineer, and at the time, the Academy’s Civil Engineering Section Chief.

To solve the problem, the team went straight to the front lines.

“The first phase of our design process was to clearly identify the concerns of the operators and maintenance crews,” said Spira.

Then-cadets Katie Spira and Thomas Morrow work together on their senior design project. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Then-cadets Katie Spira and Thomas Morrow work together on their senior design project. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

They learned that the tube had to be removed in order to slide pallets of gear on and off the plane. All of the potential designs thus incorporated the idea that the tube needed to be detachable, secured to a base that was low enough to the deck that the pallet could slide right over it.

The team brainstormed various solutions, always keeping the operators front and center in the project.

“By constantly checking our design concepts with the maintenance technicians and the fabricators,” said Spira, “We never steered too far off course of the practical. You can have a great design that looks nice and is easy to produce, but meets none of the needs of the customer. By being in constant communication with our ‘consumer,’ we were able to produce a better and more effective product.”

By far, said Spira, the best part of the design process was being able to travel to various air stations and talk to maintenance technicians and production crews.

At one point, they had four separate teams in one room: the maintenance crews who worked on and serviced the flare tube; the computer design and fabrication team; the command cadre; and the cadet senior design team. Each group had vital feedback that greatly contributed to the design’s success.

The maintenance technicians suggested developing a ‘key’ to the design; for instance, making one quick-release pin larger than the others, so it could only be installed one way. The computer design and fabrication team had several recommendations that would drastically reduce the time to draw the design in the computer and fabricate it, cutting the prototype cost in half. The command cadre made suggestions for material selection, based on their previous experiences. The team incorporated all these points in some form or fashion into their final design.

Without this meeting and the support of the aviation community, we could not have been as successful with this project, Spira said.

The group also intentionally designed failure into their invention. Materials fatigue over time and when exposed to excessive stresses – failure at some point is certain, so the group intentionally picked the safest and most cost-effective weak link: the pins.

The team visited operational units to help with their design project. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The team visited operational units to help with their design project. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

We designed the base to be stronger than the quick release pins, said Spira, ensuring that the first failure would be in the cheapest part of our design.

That’s not to say the design is flimsy. The group’s prototype exceeded stresses that were 1.8 times the designed failure strength, even after incorporating several safety factors.

“We realized that even in a worst-case scenario like a crash, the flare tube would not break free,” said Spira.

As the cadets graduated and started careers throughout the Coast Guard – Meyers and Morrow are at flight school, Brown is a naval engineer, and Spira serves afloat – Hatfield worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology office to patent the team’s invention. Lavanya “Elle” Ratnam, the Assistant General Counsel for Intellectual Property at the Department of Homeland Security‘s Office of General Counsel, guided Hatfield through the process of filing a government patent.

“It took a lot of persistence, but Ms. Ratnam was a champion for our patent,” said Hatfield.

In May 2014, after a very lengthy process, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a Notice of Allowance, granting the patent to the five-member Coast Guard team.

The patent “demonstrates a successful collaboration between DHS Science & Technology and the Coast Guard, that has worldwide applications,” said Ratnam.

The S&T Technology Transfer Office will now help transfer and commercialize the technology.

The invention is being adopted by ALC for use in the Coast Guard’s HC-144 fleet. Hatfield estimates the device will save approximately 16-24 labor hours per month, per plane, and millions of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs.

Hatfield encourages others with innovative ideas to test their solutions.

“Every year, the cadets in the engineering department at the Academy are looking for ideas for the fleet on projects for senior capstone design,” he said.

While he points out that not all projects have merit for fleet implementation, ideas that are unique, useful, and proven to work should be considered for a U.S. Patent.

Spira, now the commanding officer of the 87-foot patrol boat Haddock, found the experience useful to many other aspects of her career.

“I’ve used a similar ‘design process’ many times since receiving my commission,” she said. “Instead of using it to work with a product, however, I use it to work with people. Before making decisions or going down a particular course of action, I pull more people with different areas and levels of expertise into the decision-making process.”

Bravo Zulu to the inventors for a job well done!

A poster created to detail the work of the Coast Guard team. U.S. Coast Guard image.

A poster created to detail the work of the Coast Guard team. U.S. Coast Guard image.

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