NOAA tests unmanned aircraft in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Puma operator NOAA Corps Lt. j.g. Tanner Sims
Puma operator NOAA Corps Lt. j.g. Tanner Sims (standing) and NOAA scientist Todd Jacobs watch after launching the Puma at French Frigate Shoals. (Justin Rivera/NOAA)

NOAA scientists are testing two types of unmanned aircraft during the summer to survey a variety of rare and endangered species, monitor remote marine areas, locate marine debris for removal and study fragile ecological features in the vast Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

“This summer’s research is an ideal way to look at the potential of unmanned aircraft to revolutionize marine science and management,” said Robbie Hood, director of NOAA Research’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. “Unmanned aircraft extend our ability to study marine resources in remote places that are costly, difficult, and dangerous to reach with traditional ships and planes. They also allow us to see but not disturb species as we study them.”

NOAA scientists launched small unmanned aircraft called Pumas from the deck of NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai in June to video and photograph green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals and seabirds. The Puma, with its nine-foot wing-span, flew below 500 feet to take high quality video, infrared and still photographs. The Puma also took images of marine debris at sea and surveyed coastal shoreline and bird nesting habitat.

“This is a great example of how investing in our ability to deploy state of the art technology to conduct observations in remote locations can provide critical data to help NOAA in our conservation and resilience missions,” said Todd Jacobs, a scientist working with NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program who is leading the Hawaii mission. “The operation validated our hopes that we can use the aircraft in the monument for a variety of missions without harming the environment to get data that we wouldn’t otherwise get. We were able to survey in remote coves for monk seals and turtles in conditions that we may not have been able to safely land people ashore.”

Tern Island

A view of Tern Island with seabirds and rainbow. (Justin Rivera/NOAA)

“The monk seal mission was wildly successful,” said Charles Littnan, NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center lead scientist for Hawaiian monk seal research. “We were able to identify animals on the beach and in the water, identify mother-pup pairs, and get a sense of the age class of the animal – all things that are important for population monitoring. The data collected by the Puma will nicely supplement our current hands-on approach to the recovery of the species.”

Read the full article at NOAA Research.

Source: NOAA