“Eye in the sky” to help study and protect sanctuary marine resources

Technician  launches unmanned aircraft. NOAA‘s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program tested the use a UAS in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to support scientific research and increase enforcement efficiency.

Imagine a research instrument that could fly lower than an airplane, access remote areas of the ocean and send real-time information to scientists. Such a tool exists and is being evaluated in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to enhance ocean monitoring and improve resource protection.

It may look like a model airplane, but the PUMA Unmanned Aircraft System – or UAS for short – is a high tech tool scientists can use to count marine life, map habitats and better protect the sanctuary. Equipped with high-definition and infrared cameras and weighing only 13 pounds, the UAS may be deployed from the hands of a technician on land or a boat, much as a person would launch a paper airplane. The aircraft is controlled remotely by an operator, has a range of more than 10 miles, and a battery life of two hours.

Staff from NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program performed test flights of the PUMA UAS in October 2012 over the waters of the Tortugas, more than 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., to study how this tool could best be used to support sanctuary science and conservation missions.

Thanks to the clear waters of the Tortugas, during the week of test flights the UAS’ aerial video was used to map the underwater habitats surrounding Ft. Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park. The UAS can document seafloor characteristics up to 100-feet beneath the surface.

If implemented regularly in the Florida Keys, the UAS could improve enforcement efficiency in offshore locations such as the highly-protected Tortugas Ecological Reserve, where it would complement boat-based law enforcement officers. UAS could be used to determine if boats were permitted to be in the “no-take” reserve, if their activities were allowed, and help catch poachers.

The quiet nature of the UAS also makes it ideal for observing sea turtles, marine mammals or seabirds without disturbance. For example, deploying a UAS before a sea turtle tagging mission could save fuel costs and time by locating marine life in advance. The small aircraft may also be used to access and map nearshore areas too shallow for boats, such as the backcountry islands of the Florida Keys.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of four national marine sanctuaries testing UAS deployment and helping fine tune protocols for practical applications. National Marine Sanctuaries are ideal test locations for this technology due to the presence of research vessels, capable staff and usable airspace.

UAS are being used by NOAA to inform tropical storm forecasts, assess changes in Arctic sea ice, and observe endangered whales without disturbance. Enhancing scientific monitoring through the use of UAS technology helps better protect and conserve our nation’s resources.