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Protecting the Ocean: NOAA’s New Drone Program Helps Improve the Collection of Crucial Oceanic Data

BY Zacc Dukowitz
1 July 2020

This year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has significantly ramped up its use of drones for studying the ocean, providing us with another example of drones being used for good in the world.

Photo credit: NOAA

In March, NOAA established an Unmanned Systems Operations Program to support the rapid expansion of unmanned systems—both aircraft and marine systems, collectively referred to as unmanned systems, or UxS—throughout the agency.

The following month, NOAA published the results of an extensive survey of right whales conducted with the support of UAS. And then this month news has come out about its use of autonomous marine drones to collect oceanic data on fish, seafloor, and weather.

NOAA’s Unmanned Systems Operations Program

NOAA had already been using both airborne and marine UxS long before establishing the Unmanned Systems Operations Program.

But the program helps the organization to formalize its use of UAS, as well as to promote “the safe, efficient and economical operation of unmanned systems” (source).

Unmanned airborne and maritime systems are transforming how we conduct earth science at NOAA. Our new Unmanned Systems Operations Program will help us dramatically increase the application and use of these technologies in every NOAA mission area.

– Retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, Ph.D., deputy NOAA administrator

The agency uses drones solely for data collection, but the ways in which it collects data can vary widely.

As part of its work with drones, NOAA has also been investigating the use of A.I. to collect and analyze the huge amounts of data collected by drone, as has been taking place in many other fields and industries that utilize UAS in their work.

[Related reading: Drones Help Clean Up Plastic-Polluted Rivers, Could Provide Solution to Significantly Reduce Pollution in Oceans]

Here are some of the most common use cases for drones in NOAA’s work:

  • Seafloor and habitat mapping
  • Ocean exploration
  • Marine mammal and fishery stock assessments
  • Emergency response
  • At-sea observations that improve forecasting of extreme events, such as harmful algal blooms and hypoxia

Although NOAA has been experimenting with UxS for decades, improvements in drone technology over the last several years have led to a huge increase in the agency’s use of drones. Since 2012, its use of small unmanned aircraft systems has grown to ten times what it was, and its use of marine systems has grown significantly as well.

The new program at NOAA includes drone training, cybersecurity, drone acquisition. It has two different headquarters, one for unmanned aircraft, which is located in Lakeland, FL and one for unmanned maritime systems, which is located at a new facility located in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Want to learn more about NOAA’s drone program? Take a look at NOAA Unmanned Systems Strategy: Maximizing Value for Science-Based Mission Support.

How NOAA Uses Unmanned Aircraft

Want some concrete examples of how NOAA uses sUAS in its work?

Here you go:

Protected Special Research in Hawaii

News came out last week of the work NOAA researchers are performing in Hawaii to collect data on two protected species, the Hawksbill sea turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal, and one endangered species, the green sea turtle.

Aerial image of monk seals
Photo credit: Jessica Bohlander / NOAA

All three of these animals use beaches throughout Hawaii, which are remote and hard for researchers to access, making data on them limited.

Using funding from NOA’s new Unmanned Systems program, researchers in Hawaii’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) will be testing a new drone platform (the DJI Mavic Pro Government Edition) to perform a systematic assessment of remote beaches around the main Hawaiian Islands.

The goals will be to test the new platform while inventorying and collecting individual identification and photogrammetric images of Hawaiian monk seals, hawksbill turtles and green turtles.

– Jessica Bohlander, NOAA / PIFSC

The data collected in Hawaii by drone will help researchers better understand the population size and the movements of these three species. This experiment will also provide a model for the use of drones in this kind of research, and help create a path toward future use in similar scenarios throughout NOAA’s operations.

NOAA’s Right Whale Survey

Back in April, NOAA released findings from a three-month survey of right whales that it completed in partnership with the NOAA Fisheries Service, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

North Atlantic right whales are endangered. Researchers estimate only about 400 of them remain in existence, and less than a quarter of those are females. But the survey produced results that made the NOAA team hopeful about the survival of the species, finding 10 new mom and calf pairs.

Photo credit: NOAA

The survey relied heavily on aerial data, which had been collected by the NOAA team over 97 flights, logging a total of 240 flight hours. It was conducted off the coasts South Carolina, Georgia, and northeast Florida, where right whales travel every winter to give birth and nurse their young.

Learn more about how NOAA’s UxS Operations Program on the program’s website.

Know of other ways drones are being used in conservation efforts? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum.

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