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Aerial drones changing approach to Alaska endangered species protection

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission

Tim Mites, a longtime player in the fishing industry, had a better idea for counting Stellar sea lions. He'd heard a lot about the tiny flying cameras, better known as aerial drones used by the military in Afghanistan.

On a 21-day cruise through the Aleutian Islands last month, the team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Mammal Laboratory evaluated the use of unmanned aircraft to supplement other Steller sea lion surveys in the western Aleutians Islands.

Since the 1970s, the population of Steller sea lions has declined dramatically and the western stock is currently listed as an endangered species. This has led to restrictions on commercial fishing, frustrating Mites, former owner of the Bering Sea bottom fish factory trawler Seafisher.

Mites said he looked all over for someone with aerial drone expertise, before finally finding the contact he needed in Alaska, Gregory W. Walker, unmanned aircraft program manager at UAF's Geophysical Institute.

That connection led to a $200,000 grant from the federal North Pacific Research Board for last month's survey of Stellar Sea Lion beaches.

Just off the the boat in Unalaska last week, Walker said the two drones, a tiny helicopter and a miniature airplane, performed remarkably well at the task of photographing sea lions. The drone crew joined two other teams of researchers on the 108-foot research vessel Norseman, one group collecting sea lion scat or "poop" samples, while the other team mounted remote cameras with the ability to take snapshots for a year and a half.

Walker reported a big difference in sea lion populations at sea lion sites east and west of Adak Island. To the west, usually only five to ten were seen, but to the east he reported seeing hundreds of the marine mammals.

Walker said 29 drone flights were flown on the recent trip, at 21 locations, 12 with the little four-bladed helicopter that folds into a small suitcase, and at nine sites with the airplane with a ten-foot wingspan. The drones' battery power lasts for two hours aloft for the plane, while the helicopter can fly for 25 minutes. The drones are not only far cheaper, they are much safer than traditional aircraft in the absence of human pilots, he said.

The drones were controlled by a touch pad computer screen. Walker expects the equipment will become more affordable for more research on more vessels, with the flight control technology transferable to off-the-shelf IPads.

The NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory conducts manned aerial surveys with traditional aircraft throughout the Steller sea lions' Alaska habitat, from southeast Alaska along the Alaska Peninsula and all the way out west to Attu, the western most Aleutian island. There are limited aircraft landing facilities in the central and western Aleutians and the weather is quite challenging, with frequent low visibility, low ceilings and high winds, Walker said

These conditions along with minimum flight elevation requirements, necessary for both human safety and to minimize animal disturbance, make it difficult to consistently survey remote locations. Consequently, individual sites or entire segments of the survey often cannot be completed each year, Walker said.

The university and NOAA experimented with ship-based unmanned aircraft to survey the animals in the more remote portions of their western Aleutian habitat. The unmanned aircraft tested are much quieter, and can fly at lower and slower than manned aircraft, and without disturbing the animals. This lower weather ceiling has enabled the operations to proceed in weather conditions that at times would have prevented a manned aerial survey. Drone flights were regularly conducted in winds up to 30 knots and light precipitation and low clouds, Walker said.

The lack of airfields in the western Aleutians did not limit the operations as the aircraft operated entirely from the former fishing vessel Norseman. With the advanced payloads, including high-resolution color cameras, thermal infrared, as well as high definition video. the effectiveness of these virtually silent, low speed, and low flying aircraft demonstrated their potential to collect data, Walker said.

UAF brought two types of unmanned aircraft with very different flying characteristics. The first was the AeroVironment Puma All Environment. This hand-launched fixed wing miniature airplane is fully waterproof and can land in the water where it is retrieved with a small boat. The Puma flies at speeds between 20 and 40 knots and has flown as low as 200 feet over the ocean, Walker said.

The other is the Aeryon Lab's Aeryon Scout, a miniature helicopter with four propellers. The small system, weighing just 2.5 pounds, takes off and lands vertically. "There was no problem taking off. It was a bit of a challenge getting it back sometimes," Walker said.

This was the first time the Scout flew off a boat. It launched easily enough, "it just popped off the deck." But with the boats rocking motion, large magnetic disturbance, and winds over the deck, landing was a bit more complicated. The tiny helicopter was actually snatched out of the air by hand. The chopper's video camera shows Walker's hand reaching up to grab it. It was flown in wind speeds up to 25 knots and operated as low as 40 feet over the ocean, Walker said.

On some spots the team took the Aeryon Scout to the shore and collected imagery to map the island habitat. This imagery had enough definition to build a three-dimensional surface model of the area; the high-resolution imagery could then be draped on the 3-D model. With this image processing technique the mosaic photographs gain a unique perspective of the animal habitat. With both systems the imagery collected allowed researchers on the Norseman with a different perspective to perform their animal counts and to look for branded animals, Walker said.

Some of the sea lions were branded earlier with identifying codes, he said.

The university conducted the project along with the Federal Aviation Administration to help the FAA gain field experience with unmanned aircraft. The intent of working closely with the FAA is to help develop future standards that would allow this type of work more routinely. Jay Skaggs, an FAA flight inspector in the Alaska region who works with the National Unmanned Aircraft Program Office, came along on the three-week ride on the Norseman, Walker said.

The researchers expect unmanned aircraft for Steller sea lion survey work will provide more comprehensive and accurate surveys of the animals, that the use of a variety of imaging tools and techniques will improve the ability to count total population and identify gender and age subgroups of animals, and that unmanned aircraft for survey work will permit more frequent flights under more weather conditions with lower risk to equipment and people. Also, the cost of unmanned aircraft to conduct survey work will be lower than the cost of manned aircraft. Consequently, drones will collect data which is more comprehensive in scope and safer and less expensive to collect, which will enable better wildlife management practices, Walker said.

Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin(at)reportalaska.com. This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission.