Gray’s Reef testing whether unmanned aircraft can help manage sanctuary resources

Gray’s Reef has begun testing an unmanned aircraft system in waters adjacent to the sanctuary that could allow researchers to monitor marine life at relatively close range with minimal disturbance. The test of the Puma system, which can fly lower, slower and quieter than manned aircraft, took place off the Georgia coast, March 25-30. During the test, the aircraft was launched and recovered from the sanctuary’s research vessel Joe Ferguson.

The Puma UAS system was launched from Gray’s Reef  Research Vessel Joe Ferguson and flown  in a  forward-progressing box-like path in front of the vessel.

The Puma UAS system was launched from Gray’s Reef Research Vessel Joe Ferguson and flown in a forward-progressing box-like path in front of the vessel.

The test mission was meant to demonstrate the aircraft’s camera resolution and to allow researchers to explore the aircraft’s potential to support management of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. “The primary objective of the tests is to determine if this technology can be used to survey schools of Atlantic menhaden, an important fishery species along the Atlantic coast,” said George Sedberry, Acting Sanctuary Superintendent. “We also plan to test the Puma system’s capability to survey other fish species, marine mammals and sea turtles.” The Puma aircraft will fly transects up to three miles from shore between Wassaw Sound and Brunswick, searching for spring migratory schools of menhaden, which move northward along the coast in spring, followed by bluefish, king mackerel, red drum and other valuable fish that feed on them.

Real-time imagery of the seascape  along the path of the UAS, including the vessel itself, is visible on a monitor on-board the vessel.

Real-time imagery of the seascape along the path of the UAS, including the vessel itself, is visible on a monitor on-board the vessel.

The Puma is a 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft with a nine-foot wingspan, equipped with real-time video and still photo capability. The aircraft can be hand-launched from any location on land or at sea from a boat and is controlled remotely by an operator. Durable and rugged for deployment to remote marine areas and repeat usage, the aircraft can fly for up to two hours on a charge and cover a range of about 50 square miles.

The UAS is then landed on the water for retrieval by the team. (Photo credit: Reed Bohne, Regional Director, Northeast and Great Lakes Region, ONMS)

The UAS is then landed on the water for retrieval by the team. (Photo credit: Reed Bohne, Regional Director, Northeast and Great Lakes Region, ONMS)

Gray’s Reef NMS has partnered with other NOAA scientists and resource managers from the National Marine Fisheries Service. If successful, unmanned aircraft technology could be used in marine research worldwide. Possible uses include wildlife surveys for seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles, surveys to locate and identify marine debris, and other scientific data collection. For more information, contact Sarah Fangman (Sarah.Fangman@noaa.gov; 912-598-2428).

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