Scientists use unmanned aircraft to survey wildlife in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Sea turtles and monk seals on Tern Island. (Photo: NOAA)
Sea turtles and monk seals on Tern Island. (Photo: NOAA)

Scientists say unmanned aircraft systems can be used to study wildlife in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands without harming the region’s fragile ecosystem.

Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched the Puma system from NOAA’s Hiialakai ship to survey monk seals, sea turtles, sea birds and vegetation, and look for marine debris in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Readying the Puma (Photo: NOAA)
Readying the Puma (Photo: NOAA)

The aircraft completed seven flights between June 16 and 23, and a second deployment of a longer range system is scheduled for next week.

Researchers say they are pleased with the results.

“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, project scientist for NOAA Research’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program, and lead for the Hawaii missions. “This 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.”

A view of the launch boat. (Photo: NOAA)
A view of the launch boat. (Photo: NOAA)

“The monk seal mission was wildly successful,” said Charles Littnan, NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Lead Scientist for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. “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.”

The Puma is a 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft with a nine-foot wingspan, equipped with real-time video and still photo capability. It is controlled by specially-trained pilots with NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and can fly for up to two hours on a charge and cover a range of about 50 square miles.

Next week, researchers will use NASA’s Ikhana unmanned aircraft system, which has longer range and higher resolution optics than the Puma, to conduct similar activities in both the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Scientists will compare data collected from both systems with each other as well as with traditional survey methods and satellite data to assess the best use of this technology for managing the Monument.

Sea turtles and monk seals on Trig Island. (Photo: NOAA)
Sea turtles and monk seals on Trig Island. (Photo: NOAA)
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