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Why the Powerful 'SeaGuardian' UAV is a Game Changer

SeaGuardian is said to be a game changer that will revolutionize maritime security, capable of capturing detailed footage of ships over 9 miles away.



The SeaGuardian, a large unmanned aerial vehicle that the Maritime Self-Defense Force been testing, June 21, 2023, at the JMSDF Hachinohe Air Base. (© Sankei by Toyoda Ichioka)

On June 21, the large unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) MQ-9B SeaGuardian, which has been undergoing test operations by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force since 2022, was revealed to the media.

The SeaGuardian drone then left for the JMSDF's Hachinohe Air Base in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture. Given the increasing naval activities by China and Russia, the Defense Ministry is exploring the possibility of UAVs taking over the vigilance and surveillance tasks traditionally performed by human-piloted patrol planes.

For the first time, reporters were granted access to the operation room in the hangar of the air base, from where the drone is remotely controlled. There, we were given an exclusive glimpse into the operations of SeaGuardian, hailed as a game changer that will revolutionize naval combat. Reporters were not allowed to take photos inside the room at the time.

A JMSDF member checks the footage from the SeaGuardian in a Hachinohe Air Base operation room on June 21. (© Sankei by Toyohiro Ichioka)

Exceptional Image Quality

Inside, one of the operators, a woman of foreign nationality, was seated in front of a monitor screen. She was clicking away at the mouse. 

On the screen was a map showing the Pacific waters near the Sanriku in northern Japan. A mark indicating the movements of the UAV was slowly moving. When the operator clicked on a blue triangle within a fan-shaped region denoting radar coverage, a cargo ship appeared on another monitor. 

I was impressed by the clarity of the image. The handrails along the deck, as well as the white waves trailing behind the ship, were clearly visible. The letters "TOKYO" on the stern, indicating the ship's registered port, were also identifiable. Even more surprisingly, I was told that the video of the ship had been captured from a distance of over 15 kilometers (9.3 miles).

Powerful Optical and Infrared Cameras

A JMSDF staff member explained that the image quality is so exceptional that a car model could be identified from the height of Mount Fuji, which stands at 3,776 meters (12,388 feet). But he refrained from delving into specifics regarding the performance of the system.

Meanwhile, the operator continued to switch between videos of various ships in the surrounding waters on the monitor. She also communicated with the pilots operating the SeaGuardian drone in a partitioned room through the radio.

SeaGuardian was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GAASI) based in the United States. It is 11.8 meters (38.7 feet) long and has a wingspan of 24 meters (78.7 feet). Boasting an impressive flight endurance of 24 hours, it can cover a cruising distance of approximately 4,300 kilometers (2671.9 miles). This is more than the distance between Japan and the Philippines. Whenever the onboard radar detects a ship, the surveillance videos captured by the advanced 360-degree camera and infrared camera are transmitted back to the operation room.

The cockpit of the SeaGuardian in the operation room of the JMSDF Hachinohe Air Base on June 21. (© Sankei by Toyohiro Ichioka)

A Click of the Mouse

On this day, reporters were given a peek at the eight hours of surveillance activities conducted by the SeaGuardian drone in waters off the coast of Sanriku.

Vigilance and surveillance operations have long depended on the observation skills of human personnel aboard patrol planes. In fact, human eyes can detect ships 10 to 20 kilometers (6.2–12.4 miles) away. However, to make closer examinations to address suspicions, the aircraft must repeatedly descend from an altitude of 1,000 meters (3280.84 feet) to a range of 150 to 300 meters (492.1–984.3 feet). In contrast, SeaGuardian streamlines this process with just a single click of the mouse.


Furthermore, patrol planes can detect submerged submarines. However, UAVs equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) could take over these capabilities in the future.

Monitoring Chinese and Russian Naval Ships

An officer at the air base, who was formerly a patrol plane pilot, recalled his amazement when he first saw the SeaGuardian: "I thought, 'We've finally come this far.'"

At present, a US company is operating the SeaGuardian drone, provided by a contracted supplier, on behalf of the JMSDF. The JMSDF intends to conduct 2,000 hours of test flights by September 2023. The aim is to determine the extent to which the UAV can assume the tasks currently carried out by patrol planes.

But the officer added, "Deploying manned aircraft during emergencies is still important, as it demonstrates the nation's resolve to counter threats."

The logo of the UAV unit features a shoebill, a large wading bird known for its piercing gaze. With its sharp vision, the unit is expected to closely monitor Chinese and Russian naval ships in the nearby waters. By combining the capabilities of "mechanical eyes" with the discernment of "human eyes," the unit will keep a vigilant watch.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Toyohiro Ichioka

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