With 25 years in maritime safety and security as a US Coast Guard, Coy Whitener is the captain you want beside you on the water – especially when putting untested autonomous vehicles through their paces in one of the world’s hurricane hot spots.
Based in Panama City, Florida, Coy is the Maritime Lead for our team helping US Navy scientists and engineers test unmanned aerial, surface and submersible prototype vehicles.
“Every day is different,” says Coy. “We could be onshore, in the bay, or 80 miles out. Night tests, day tests; a few hours, a few weeks – it changes all the time.”
The conditions change all the time as well, and those glorious tropical waters can turn deadly without warning to the untrained eye. Fortunately, Coy and his colleagues know the waves and weather like old friends:
“We’re always ready for whatever the sea cares to throw at us. Extreme wave heights, low visibility, gale-force winds – they can all make things more interesting. Hurricane season is a whole other ball game, and we shut down testing if lightning strikes within ten nautical miles.”
Coy’s job is to keep everybody safe and the customer happy. This is where he excels: drawing on years of training and experience to understand all the dimensions of each mission, recognise the hazards, identify alternatives, and get the customer onboard with new solutions to deliver the best, most timely test outcomes without putting anyone at risk.
“These are complex operations with a lot of moving parts in an inhospitable environment. Divers in the water, cranes and winches, heavy loads overhead, people moving back and forth between vessels. And some of this equipment is not exactly proven yet.”
We’re not just talking about multimillion dollar naval assets here – we’re talking about people’s lives. Safety comes first, every time.
Sometimes that means having to draw a line. Coy recalls a difference of opinion with a test director whose faith in his lightning tracker app was at odds with the bolts Coy and his crew could see striking the surface less than 500 yards away:
“That storm moved in fast, and we had personnel exposed to the elements in a big metal boat. It was definitely time to call it off and go home.”
When conditions are favourable, though, it’s all hands on deck for safety:
“It doesn’t matter who you are or how experienced you are, on our boats everybody gets the full safety briefing every time and everybody is a look out – responsible for speaking up if something doesn’t look or feel right.”
And that includes his own crew:
“They’re all highly experienced but we stand against complacency. There’s always something new to learn and the old way is rarely the best way. We go over and over the standards, over and over the tactics. Someone falls overboard at night – what do you do? Shipboard fire – what do you do? We need to know, we need to practice, we need to be ready. That’s how we stand firm at sea for safety.”
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