Exclusive: Q & A with Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, 54TH chief of engineers and commanding general of The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite assumed his position as Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on May 19, 2016.As the USACE commanding general, he is responsible for more than 32,000 civilian employees and 700 military personnel who provide project management, construction support and science and engineering expertise in more than 110 countries.
What do you see as the main benefits behind expanding unmanned systems use by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)?
The mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to solve the nation’s toughest engineering problems. To do this, we have to maintain technical relevance in our many disciplines and unmanned systems are a growing segment of the engineering ecosystem. The principle benefit for USACE is to maintain our position as a world-class engineering organization. This includes the significant potential for time and money savings as well as intangibles such as increasing safety for our personnel.
UAS get the most attention in the news these days, but USACE is involved in a full spectrum of activities using unmanned and remote systems. Some examples are our unmanned surface vessels including the Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel (WAM-V), the Multifunctional Assessment Reconnaissance Vessel (MARV), and the Mini Robotic Submersible Dredge (MRSD).
The WAM-V and the MARV both provide excellent capabilities for port assessments and other missions to support navigation efforts. The WAM-V carries sonar for subsurface maritime assessments and also has terrestrial lidar equipment on deck. This dual capability gives engineers and operations personnel a complete picture with one data collection. The MARV is designed to assess pile-supported marine structures in a fraction of the time of traditional methods and without exposing divers to the hazardous conditions they pose.
The MRSD is a product of our own Engineering Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) effort. Even at 40 feet and 25,000 pounds, it is truly a miniaturization of traditional dredging machinery. This system is transportable via airlift and can be deployed worldwide to support immediate dredging needs remotely. The benefit is twofold: enabling rapid port or channel clearing and removing personnel from potentially harmful environments or dangerous munitions that might be at the dredge site.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite (left) assesses the features of the MRSD micro-dredge, which provides a rapid deployed, remotely operated dredging capability critical to navigation and port operations during emergency operations. Photo: USACE
How do you intend to implement the growth of unmanned systems use by USACE? What guidance have you given the field commanders?
USACE has been growing unmanned systems use for years. This work was done locally at the district offices. During our Executive Governance Meeting in the Summer of 2018, at the recommendation of our senior staff officers, I directed the establishment of our Headquarters Aviation and Remote Systems Office. This office, located in our Directorate of Logistics, works closely with the G3 (operations) and the G6 (chief information officer). One of the key activities of the HQ program is to ensure USACE implements appropriate standards, training, and oversight of unmanned systems as well as monitors cyber security and other risks related to technology integration. Establishing our HQ Aviation and Remote Systems Office was a new beginning for growth of unmanned technology within USACE.
My goal is to ensure the enabling technologies are available to our field operating activities, while, as much as possible, headquarters manages the risks and administrative processes. If we make it useful, the field commanders will take care of the growth.
Do personnel safety factors play a role in this cost/benefit analysis?
Absolutely! Personnel safety is a cornerstone of our operational mindset and one of our highest priorities. USACE has made a lot of progress implementing safety management systems across our operations. To be able to remove a USACE employee or support contractor from a dangerous area and to use a drone or other remote system in their place provides an immeasurable value. Safety is a top intangible benefit we see with the use of remote systems, along with higher fidelity of collected information, and collection of data products like full motion video as a byproduct of unmanned operations.
Just this year in Nebraska, our Omaha district used their newly acquired UAS to collect data on several levee systems along the Missouri River that were overtopped during flooding. Without the UAS, we might have had people venturing into more dangerous situations to gather information, or we may have had less information in the operations center to help us make critical decisions. The same thing happened in the Vicksburg District on the Yazoo River a few weeks before that. We can’t quantify the measure of safety our people were afforded, but we have no doubt it was there.
What role do cost considerations play, and do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?
We are always focused on providing value to the nation. We owe it to the customers we support and to the taxpayers. The commanders and directors in USACE make careful, informed decisions to ensure best value for every dollar USACE spends. The value of using unmanned systems is unmistakable. When the use of drones or other remote systems is appropriate, we work to realize up to 90 percent reduction in cost over traditional methods, and up to 85 percent time savings for data collection. The intangibles like safety, increased data resolution, and an enduring data record are just icing on the cake.
The key is appropriate employment of the systems. Our commanders conduct careful cost benefit analysis prior to acquisition of these systems. Once fielded, our teams are trained to conduct a thorough analysis of alternatives and to bring the best tool to bear for each job. When the correct tool is an unmanned system, the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.
Were drones or other types of systems used to help aid recovery in Puerto Rico, and what roles did they play?
While they were used in isolated efforts, remote systems did not play a major role for USACE in the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. This is one of the issues that highlighted our need to provide a program similar to those found in other large federal organizations. Our operations officer, Col. Dave Hibner, who has been a vocal advocate for unmanned systems for years, has worked with our aviation program manager to ensure integration into our emergency support function mission.
The first area to see benefit has been our Blue Roof, or temporary roofing mission. The Blue Roof program manager incorporated UAS usage in the Hurricane Michael response with promising results. He has continued to lead UAS integration into our emergency support functions and has a plan for the next contingency to expand UAS roofing inspection missions as well as to incorporate other technologies that are tangential to UAS use.
If you run the numbers on Blue Roof in Puerto Rico where we emplaced over 59,000 missions, a savings of only 30 minutes per mission would have reduced the overall workload by more than 14 man-years of effort! So, while we didn’t have UAS to bring to the Puerto Rico mission, we learned from it and are working to be ready for future ESF missions.
Are there potential benefits to incorporating unmanned systems in emergency recovery plans? What are they?
The potential benefits for emergency support function missions are the same as they are for normal operations. Efficiency, accuracy, and safety are the top three that come to mind. However, USACE operators have to be proficient and have up to date equipment to maximize their emergency response capability.
Our aviation program manager is developing the unmanned training standards to include the skillsets needed for normal and emergency operations. All our major mission, civil works, military programs, and emergency response — while different — require the same knowledge and skills. This ensures all of our remote systems operators can support whatever mission comes their way. It also ensures synchronization between all our major programs. This synchronization is a risk factor I track to ensure military programs and civil works operations don’t deviate enough to require separate programs and all the inefficiency that would come with them.
What are the major limitations to growth in the use of unmanned systems within USACE, and how do you plan to overcome them?
A key factor for integration of any new or emerging technology is to avoid the urge to proceed too quickly. I have tasked our Headquarters Aviation Program to provide well-defined standards and training to meet the mission needs in the field. The program teaches use of risk management in acquisition, mission planning, and execution.
At a higher level, there are regulatory, safety, and security limitations we can overcome through deliberate establishment of an excellent program and clear communication of our mission and intentions to our governing agencies. We are doing that now and will continue to do it.
Our headquarters program continues to work regulatory and policy issues, and commanders in the field continue to discover new ways to safely and effectively implement and leverage the ever emerging unmanned systems technology.
Would you say USACE is ahead of, or behind, industry in the use of unmanned systems?
The key step to getting USACE on track with unmanned systems use was the establishment of our Headquarters Aviation and Remote Systems Program. This program has removed 80-90 percent of the administrative burden from our field operations and is assisting districts in establishing new programs monthly. We were behind industry but are quickly closing the gap and expect to be on par within one to two years.
For UAS, the FAA and Department of Defense regulations have settled down with the implementation of the FAA Part 107 and the new AR 95-1 Flight Regulations. Ground, maritime and aerial unmanned systems all face cyber security threats that we are poised to control with the help of HQDA [headquarters, Department of the Army] and OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. A significant portion of the Headquarters Program efforts during this year have been focused on ensuring a solid cyber security posture.
Industry users of unmanned systems are experiencing a stabilization of operational standards as well. Thanks, not in small part, to the efforts of organizations like AUVSI, which works to bring industry and regulators together several times a year to shape the future of unmanned systems.
Our job, and we are ready to move out, is to advance the state of the art together with our industry partners in multiple engineering and scientific disciplines. I’d say we are in a very good place on the use of unmanned systems. They sky really is the limit from here.
A USACE employee, Jonathan Marshall, orients Lt. Gen.Semonite (left) to the ERDC MARV project unmanned surface vessel. The MARV is designed to assess piling structures via remote sonar systems. The MARV ensures safety of personnel on the structures as well as inspection and repair crews facing underwater hazards.Photo: USACE
What about in comparison to other military operations? What can you learn from them?
Well, the warfighting army is clearly a leader in using unmanned systems. Every officer with combat experience has benefited from the intelligence and kinetic capability of unmanned aerial systems like the Raven, Shadow, or Gray Eagle. What we have learned from that experience is to expect great capability and work to find new ways to employ it.
UAS operations in the military have evolved from merely putting a camera in the sky to providing security over-watch, delivering equipment or supplies in small quantities, disrupting IED emplacement activities without direct troop engagement, and many other operations that weren’t even imagined by the early UAS developers.
We need to do the same thing with unmanned technology in engineering operations. An example of this innovation is a needed turbine inspection at one of our dams in the Portland District. The facility manager was going to have to close the penstock and drain the turbine chamber to allow a person or UAS to get under the turbine and inspect it. However, our remote system operator there, Todd Manny, recommended a novel solution; use of a tethered submersible system to swim in under the turbine and inspect it using sonar rather than a camera. This eliminated the need to drain the chamber and reduced the risk of injury or loss of the UAS that would have occurred if it fell into the water.
We leverage the work of the Army’s Project Management office for UAS to bring their best products to our fleet where it makes sense. Our aviation team is located near Redstone Arsenal for proximity to the Army aviation acquisition efforts there. One of our aviation team members interfaces with the PM UAS small range reconnaissance (SRR) team on a regular basis.
How can the unmanned systems industry help you accomplish your missions?
Continue to innovate! Our industry partners in every discipline are using cutting edge technologies to execute their missions. These advancements lead to better, longer lasting solutions at reduced costs. Keep it up!
How do you plan to deal with cybersecurity issues?
By the book! The Aviation and Remote Systems program effort I directed was initially recommended to me by our chief information officer in 2018. We recognized the cyber threat and are working to ensure we protect our systems every day. Our remote systems cyber security posture uses a nested approach that begins with acquiring secure systems, ensures a thorough mission assessment process, and isolates remotely collected data until it is scanned to ensure data integrity and security. We will continue to incorporate protections to ensure our civil works, military programs and emergency response missions overcome any cyber threats.
Where do you see the use of unmanned aircraft and ROVs or other systems in USACE in three to five years?
I expect the use of these systems will explode in the coming years. I expected it when I was a division commander in USACE, and I’m seeing it happen during my tenure as the 54th U.S, Army Chief of Engineers. We are already flying hundreds of survey and mapping missions every year and I expect that number to continue to increase.
USACE has initiatives to use UAS to improve Blue Roof responsiveness, support flood fighting operations across the country, map undersea terrain (bathometry) for coastal management, and the list goes on.
There is potential in every mission we execute. Be it use by our park rangers, public affairs, facilities managers, security personnel, construction managers, or countless others with the imagination to innovate. Some have direct, tangible benefits that can be attributed to cost savings, and all missions have intangible benefits that range from increased personnel safety to being able to provide data that would have previously remained unavailable.
There is no limitation to where we will be in three to five years. The imagination of our people and our mission requirements will guide this growth.
What advice would you give to the next Chief of Engineers for the use of unmanned systems?
Get out there and see what’s happening! You have the unique honor to lead the finest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has ever existed. Embrace the growth of the amazing technologies we possess and encourage the people in the field to keep pushing the envelope!
Below: Jason Kirkpatrick, aviation and remote systems program manager, reviews a senseFly eBee X fixed-wing drone with Lt. Gen. Semonite as Jeffrey Burbach, USACE director of logistics, looks on. Photo: Phil Tintner