Like their reclusive namesake, Hawaiian monk seals live in remote, almost-impossible-to-reach regions of the Northern Hawaiian Islands.
Until recently, researchers attempting to track this endangered species braved dangerous treks over volcanic stones and coral reefs – at least until they unleashed the Puma, a military-grade, fixed wing drone developed by AeroVironment.
Hakai magazine writer Kim Steutermann Rogers reports that researchers aboard the Oscar Elton Sette recently deployed the UAV on a test flight. Using powerful zoom lenses, the drone can help researchers identify and observe previously stenciled monk seals as well as take measurements to note growth as well as birth rates.
The Puma sports a 10-foot wingspan – slightly larger than two native birds, the great frigatebird and the black-footed albatross. This means that the drone’s presence isn’t likely to scare away the seals since they are used to winged neighbors.
“The long-term vision would be to have a fixed-wing [UAS] aircraft on all research ships working in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and a hexacopter on every island where there’s a field camp,” Lieutenant Michael Marino of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Rogers.
For AeroVironment, the research program is just another example of how it is re-purposing military drones for civilian use. The company recently broke through the commercial sector after garnering a Section 333 exemption from the FAA. A few years ago, the U.S. government authorized BP to fly the Puma to conduct surveys in Alaska, pointing out that “the Puma UAS is built with LiDAR and other sensor technologies that work to collect data and imagery of pipelines, roads and gravel pits.”
The Puma is one of many drones hitting the high seas for research purposes. Perhaps the most visible project is the hilariously-named Snotbot, a copter drone that can quietly and unobtrusively fly into a whale’s spray of discharged water and mucus and obtain samples without harassing the whale. Students from Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. designed the in partnership with Ocean Alliance.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
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