ViDAR on PAL Dash 8

ViDAR on PAL’s Dash 8s for counter-narcotics missions – Part 1

Published on: April 2024

The Snowbirds of Curacao ( Part 1)

With an upgraded Fleet of Dash 8s, PAL Aerospace has become a critical partner in counter-narcotics and other missions across the Caribbean.

St. John’s N.L. is geographically the most easterly city in North America, a full 1.5 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, jutting out into the frigid and harsh waters of the North Atlantic. For PAL Aerospace, the location is home base, and key to it success flying maritime operations. The company has provided maritime surveillance capabilities to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans since 1988, and has supported other departments and agencies, including the Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of National Defence, with search and rescue and maritime domain awareness.

From that perch in the Atlantic, PAL Aerospace has grown a global network of De Havilland Canada Dash 8s conducting mutli-missions operations for governments, leveraging advanced sensors to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), maritime security, law enforcement, disaster response, and search and rescue. Since 2007, PAL has provided a contractor owned, contractor operator service from Curacao, supporting the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard with two Dash 8-100 maritime surveillance aircraft and experienced crews, on calls and ready to respond around the clock. In February, the company delivered the first of two upgraded, missionized Dash 8s to the small island, part of a contract renewal reaffirming its commitment into the next decade to provide maritime patrol.

Curacao, just north of Venezuela, sits astride a strategic location for both oil refining and drug trafficking. The Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard finds itself in the heart of the traffic flow of thousands of tons of cocaine annually. The Caribbean corridor offers the cartels one of the more important maritime export pathways for a drug that moves primarily over the water.

PAL is a linchpin for the aviation response, and is often relied upon by the French Rescue Coordination Center (Le Centre Regional Operationnel de Surveillance ed De Sauvetage Antilles-Guyane, or CROSS-AG), and Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South), which falls under U.S Southern Command and is responsible for all detection and monitoring in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. Transnational criminal organizations transport about 3,000 metric tons of cocaine per year, according to RAdm Mark Fedor, director of JIATF-South. At around US$40,000 to US$50,000 per kilo, that adds up to about US$135 billion per year of illicit drugs globally. JIATF-South’s annual take is about 10 per cent of that flow – in 2023, they seized 300 metric tons, worth over US$8 billion. ” The value of our international partners is absolutely critical,” said Fedor. U.S assets are scarce and frequently pulled away for international operations, so support for drug seizures from partner nations is critical. He likened the policing of the maritime transit zones to having just five police cards for the entire continental U.S. ” That means our targeting process has to be ruthlessly efficient,” Fedor said. Before it launches an interdiction, JIATF-South assembles a targeting package from an intelligence picture that fuses multiple sources of information. ViDAR from Sentient Vision Systems offers a new capability, an AI-enabled sensor payload that of multiple high resolution, full motion video cameras able to scan the water for targets in up to a sea state of six, equating to 3.5 metre (10-foot) seas and 25 knot winds. Once a target is spotted, including persons in the water, the system snaps a photo and sends it to the AIMS-ISR mission system for the operator to view. The operator can then use the mission system to cross-cue the onboard optical turret to identify the object.

“Trying to find a person in the water in a high sea state is really difficult,” Smith observed. “Any search and rescue operator will tell you that the probability of detection of a person in the water is very low. But this new technology is a bit of a game changer for us. We’re really looking forward to using this piece of kit to find those people.” Software upgrades to the Dash 8 radar system may also be game changing. Under the new contract, the radar has gone from analog to digital processing, allowing the aircraft to conduct missions at greater altitudes. This has significantly increase the true air speed- ground speed essentially- and enabled the aircraft to cover more water and to remain covert longer to avoid counter detection by the narco traffickers. PAL’s operators use a layered approach with their sensors when conducing surveillance. The sensor suite allows them to begin processing the maritime picture over 240 kilometres (150 miles) from a target of interest. The sensors with the greatest range will start to build a picture and as the aircraft closes the distance, other sensors will add greater fidelity, further building that common operating picture. As the Dash 8approaches the area of operation (AOR), the sensor team can eliminate targets using tools within the AIMS mission system to develop a clearer picture of what’s in the AOR before they even begin searching and prioritizing those targets. “Pulling all that together is really what makes these sensors work so well-just the ability for them to look at one picture with maps and overlays with every target on it.” said Smith. Stay tuned for Part II.

Article by Brent Bergan, photos by Patrick Lalande

Published in Skies Mag – Aviation, Aerospace and Aircraft News Magazine