NOAA defends use of UAV for Hawaiian island research

By Emily Aasand | July 31, 2014

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are using unmanned aircraft systems to survey wildlife, monitor remote marine areas, locate marine debris for removal and study fragile ecological features in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The NOAA used a UAS to complete seven flights to collect data and gather photgraphs and video monk seals, green sea turtles, and seabirds at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in June. The scientists argue that the aircraft can gather valuable data without harming wildlife.

“These systems are designed to be quiet and stealthy,” said Todd Jacobs, project scientist for NOAA Research’s UASs Program. “They have a very low-profile so the organisms that we’re surveying—monk seals for example—don’t even know that the aircraft is there.”

According to Charles Littnan, lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, the UAS flight was very successful.

“We were able to identify animals on the beach and in water, identify mother-pup pairs, and get a sense of the age class of the animal. All of those are important things for our population monitoring,” said Littnan.

The pilot of the UAS was familiar with the FAA rules.

“The Puma (UAS) does not threaten the birds. They don’t flush. They don’t attack it. They don’t seem to be disturbed,” said Jacobs. “But as far as crashing and hitting an animal, very, very unlikely, but not impossible.”

In June, the use of UASs was banned in national parks nationwide due to noise and visitor safely concerns. The ban is temporary until new regulations can be put into place.

“We do have areas that we share jurisdiction along coastlines with the National Park Service and we’ll certainly work with the NPS when and if we have reason to use the UAS in those areas,” said Jacobs.

The Puma AE (all environment) is a fully waterproof UAV designed for both land and maritime use. The unit can land in water or on land. The Puma has 3.5 hours of flight endurance, according to AeroVironment, the largest manufacturer of small-scale UAVs.

NOAA’s second part of the mission involved flights by NASA’s Ikhana from the Pacific Missile Ranger Facility in Kaua’i. NOAA used Ikhana to help understand vessel activity in sensitive areas on the monument, as well locate marine debris over a larger area than Pumas can reach.

“These missions allow us to test the unmanned aircraft’s effectiveness in locating marine debris, such as ghost nets, and identify high density debris areas,” said Kyle Koyanagi, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for NOASS’s Marine Debris Program. “The UAS technology could supplement our existing surveys and benefit any efforts to remove debris at-sea before it reaches sensitive atolls, coral reefs, and beaches.”

The Ikhana is a medium altitude, long-endurance aircraft with 66-foot wingspan that will be flown at about 24,000 feet while surveying for vessels. It’s equipped with radar that can scan over 100 miles, infrared and video cameras.