Off the coast of Georgia, researchers and pilots from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently tested the ability of a small unmanned aircraft -- a drone -- to conduct fish population surveys.
“It’s a proof of concept mission,” said Joe Smith, leader of menhaden sampling for the National Marine Fisheries Service lab in Beaufort, N.C. Smith had been planning an Atlantic coast survey of the fish with traditional aircraft but found the price tag steep at an estimated $500,000 for start up.
“Last summer we started talking about using drones,” he said.
The aircraft NOAA uses is the AeroVironment PUMA AE.
“That’s the all environment,” said NOAA Corps Officer Kevin Doremus. “It’s a hand-launched, 13-pound UAS or unmanned aerial system.”
It can be recovered on water or land. Battery operated, it’s quiet, a plus when looking for wildlife, and it can cover a range of about 50 square miles flying for two hours on a charge.
Equipped with real-time video and still photo capability, the system of three planes, plus cameras and controls, costs about $250,000. NOAA owns two such systems and has used them to look for sea birds, whales, turtles and marine debris.
NOAA Corps Officer Mike Marino launched the PUMA from the deck of the R/V Joe Ferguson Friday, pushing it with his right arm as he held the nose aloft with his left. It arced upward and buzzed off on its mission. The PUMA was programmed to fly a zig-zag pattern several miles off the coast of St. Catherines and Sapelo islands while the R/V Ferguson sailed through the middle of its path, never more than a mile away.
To retrieve the PUMA, its operators stall it, allowing it to stow its camera in the fuselage before it plops unharmed in the water. The crew then motors close enough to pull it back into the boat by hand.
Unmanned aircraft were developed for military purposes, but NOAA prefers to leave that connotation aside.
“It’s not a drone; we’re not allowed to call it a drone,” Doremus said.
As the PUMA flew, Doremus controlled the camera from the cabin of the Ferguson. Marino controlled the plane’s speed and altitude. And Smith donned goggles that allowed him to watch for menhaden in the live-streamed images.
The fish, which look like a “big fat sardine,” are a type of herring. Low on the food chain, lots of other fish eat them, including tuna, mackerel and red drum. People consume them, too, in the form of fish oil. And because menhaden are fed to poultry, you might be eating them without knowing it.
“When you’re eating chicken, you’re eating menhaden indirectly,” said George Sedberry, acting superintendent of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary.
Sedberry is eager to see what the PUMA can do. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary could use it in a variety of ways, including sea turtle and right whale counts, he said. It could even give managers a better idea of how many boats are out in the sanctuary.
“It’s much cheaper than putting an aircraft or a boat out,” Sedberry said.
Wildlife researchers around the world see the advantages. The nonprofit Conservationdrones.org shares information about low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles for conservation applications, especially in developing countries. It’s already seen successful missions ranging from orangutans counts in Indonesia to anti-poaching flights to protect rhinos, elephants and tigers in Nepal’s national parks.
Observing aboard the Ferguson, Layne Bolen Pankratz, a doctoral student at George Mason University, could see how they drones will be of use to her as she researches how sea turtles use seagrass meadows in the shallow blue water of the Florida Keys. Last week’s survey was a dry run to test the technology here. The menhaden weren’t entirely cooperative, though. The fish typically migrate at this time of year from Florida to Cape Cod, but the colder-than-normal spring means they are lagging behind schedule. Still, on Thursday Smith did get one image of a large school of fish with birds feeding on it. When threatened, menhaden form a ball, with all the fish struggling to get to the protective center. The ball Smith saw was a couple hundred feet across and was likely menhaden.
It was enough to sell him on the technology.
“I think this is the way to go,” Smith said. “This is a cheaper, probably safer way to go to do coastal surveys.”