On the Road with NOAA

Wild Blue Yonder

NOAA Tracks Wildlife, Maritime Debris in Joint UAS Ops First

By Danielle Lucey


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spearheaded a new method for observing marine wildlife this month off the shore of the North Olympic Peninsula in Washington, using two different unmanned platforms to perform nearshore and offshore operations.

The mission is part of an effort by NOAA to survey the area of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary to get population distribution and abundance information on marine wildlife and to search for marine debris, such as fishing nets and items that may have drifted over from Japan after the tsunami.

NOAA is flying the two aircraft, an AeroVironment Puma AE and a Microdrones md4-1000 quadcopter, and their sensors under certificates of authorization it has obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration that cover all its nearshore operations. This mission marks the first time NOAA has operated under a COA obtained solely by the agency.

This mission is the first NOAA field test of the quadcopter. The team has used the Puma in the past in surveys, like ones offshore Key West, Fla., and the Channel Islands, Calif., but this was the first time the agency used the two aircraft in a joint mission.

“This mission is huge,” says Lt. Cmdr. Jason Mansour.

Mansour is the lead for the operations of the unmanned aircraft. Based out of MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, Mansour is part of a four-man team from NOAA Corps that oversees the two aircraft, ensuring they are used safely and managing expectations.

“There’s a lot at stake in these joint operations,” he says. “And we want to make sure that future clients know what the strengths and the weaknesses are of these platforms.”

That being said, a lot of this mission is untested, he says, because the flying conditions offshore Washington are unique, with fog, rain and strong winds all limiting how the aircraft may be used.

Mansour says his goals for the mission are twofold — demonstrate the platforms’ abilities and increase awareness of NOAA’s work with unmanned aircraft. He said even AeroVironment has expressed surprise in how NOAA is using its surveillance aircraft, saying the agency is making the Puma fly more dangerous missions than the unmanned aircraft has experienced in warzones.

“It’s impressive being on the front lines of this technology,” says Mansour, who says he’s frustrated by the current attention the media gives “drones,” which he says is often one-dimensional.

“Critical environmental intelligence — that’s what we’re collecting,” he said.

The COAs call for visual line of sight operations, not an easy task in the very rainy, foggy climate offered by the Pacific Northwest. The certificate covers an area that stretches well beyond NOAA’s planned survey area, says Todd Jacobs who had worked on NOAA’s UAS program since its inception nearly 10 years ago. The COAs span all the way up the coast to the Canadian border, 100 miles away. The team also cannot fly over national park land in the area, because unmanned aircraft are currently not authorized to operate in wilderness-designated land.

The aircraft must also be operated by trained manned aircraft pilots, a requirement currently filled by Mansour’s NOAA Corps team.

Performing Operations

 The week of 24 June marked the second week of the team’s operations. The group was able to perform the joint survey the first week, but the second week brought more difficult operational conditions, with high winds and very choppy water.

To ensure they still were able to collect data, half the team took the quadcopter and performed a nearshore survey further down the Pacific Coast at Point Grenville. Meanwhile, the other half of the team operated the Puma off NOAA research vessel Tatoosh, harbored in La Push, Wash.

Offshore, living on jagged sea stacks that tower over the water, are marine birds, including a mix of common murres and three species of cormorants that have had population issues in recent years. Occasionally, the aircraft will also spot a tufted puffin. The team took the research vessel (which fits 11 people) about 30 minutes offshore, battling a mix of conditions that lilted the 38-foot Tatoosh like a jet ski.

Once out by the stacks, the NOAA Corps operating crew assembled and performed checks on the Puma before hand-launching it out toward the coast.

Once airborne, the Puma circled the stacks, allowing researchers to first capture video of the area. When a location seemed more valuable, NOAA mission Chief Scientist Ed Bowlby would ask the two operators to circle the Puma back around to take high-resolution stills of the bird population.

Bowlby says the team is testing to see if they can use the aircraft to identify different bird species. This is easier with the murres and puffins, which have distinctive features and markings. The three species of cormorants, however, all have a body full of black feathers, making them more challenging.

Bowlby selects areas of interest from a video feed that is downloaded to both his and one of the operator’s screens. Multiple passes are important so any birds in areas like crevasses can be double-checked and to ensure that no areas are overlooked.

After a few circles around the jagged rock formations, the operations team directed the Puma back in before a nearby squall could come into the area. Winds were already high at 15 knots, and the team will not fly the Puma over 25 knots.

The aircraft landed as planned in the water and the team recovered the aircraft, which has orange highlighted wings so NOAA can keep better visual tabs on its location. The wings of the aircraft intentionally detach upon landing, with a tether that keeps the pieces together, but on this day the aircraft landed in one piece — a softer landing that is sometimes the case when NOAA is flying in high winds, says Jacobs.

The mission is a complex collaboration, with multiple NOAA offices teaming with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System. The service wants to compare the findings of the mission to annual helicopter surveys, which it will be performing in July along the same National Wildlife Refuge Islands.

“We are planning and hoping to continue this next year, and once we’ve processed the information to show this to other entities … to see about expanding the scope for next year if possible,” says Bowlby.

He hopes to have all the data analyzed for NOAA in two to three months’ time. NOAA adapted the same video post-processing software it uses on remotely operated vehicles in the water to review its UAS data stream.

“We’ll be looking, comparing photos to photos to see,” says Bowlby. “The idea is if this shows we can get the same information, it obviously makes economic sense to start doing unmanned surveys versus the expensive helicopter surveys. As well as safety factors — you’ve seen how remote and jagged those islands are. Fortunately we haven’t had any fatalities, but that’s always a concern.”

Puma Power

NOAA currently owns two Puma systems and borrows a third from the military on occasion to perform maritime surveys. Sea-based launch and recovery is key to NOAA’s systems, says Jacobs, and the Puma doesn’t require any modifications to fly from vessels like the Tatoosh.

“We’ve developed a really special relationship with AeroVironment,” says Jacobs. “We’ve come to realize we’re one of the most regular users of the Puma AE system for ocean recovering [and] using it in the oceanic environment.”

Jacobs has spent the UAS portion of his career at NOAA focusing on determining the areas of use for unmanned aircraft that are optimal and then creating procedures to make the missions flow.

“We’ve certainly identified the killer applications for this system … the things that it does really well out of the box,” he says.

 Though it’s not a part of this survey, he says he plans to perfect using the Puma for early-phase oil spill quantification and characterization soon, which right now is done by a helicopter pilot doing a lot of guesswork. Puma could give exact parameters of a spill and send that precise information to an incident commander.

“Having these things at the right place at the right time will allow, eventually, quantification of an early-phase spills,” he says.

An added attraction of Puma is it is already a proven aircraft, he says.

“One of the beauties of the Puma system is it carries military airworthiness, so it gives some credibility with the FAA,” he says. “… It’s simple. It’s durable. It’s documented.”

Jacobs adds that Puma isn’t the only platform NOAA is interested in, and the agency may in the future look for additional maritime-capable platforms.

“I think there will always be a place for the Puma, but there are other systems as well that we’ll be looking at over time.”

Counting Marine Populations

NOAA’s UAS surveying work is a far cry from the $1,200 per hour helicopters originally used for the mission, according to Sue Thomas, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist who worked on the science team for the survey.

“We cannot afford to do more than one helicopter survey a year, and it looks like we’re losing that funding,” she says. This timeframe also means she can’t look at the creatures a few months later in the year, when she’d be able to see population growth.

“But the biggest part of it is the safety issue for us.” She says with helicopters, missions spend five times as much time addressing safety concerns.

The Washington Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Complex islands are important homes to seabirds in the area, which have been declining in population. Thomas attributes the struggles to changes in upwelling and currents that are pushing seabirds out of their normal nesting areas.

Unmanned aircraft also make it easier to unobtrusively look at the population. Originally they were concerned the animals would think the aircraft were eagles, but that’s not the case.

“It’s much less of a potential for disturbance,” she says.

Though helicopter missions currently have a better image quality, she says there is a long-term goal to improve that on the Puma, which is scheduled for a camera upgrade soon. With the helicopter, they fly 600 to 700 feet above the animals, “and even then we sometimes get disturbance,” she says.

Opportunistically, the mission is also looking at sea otter populations, which can be sensitive to approaches by manned aircraft or boats. These observations are also made annually by manned aircraft, in a multiagency survey that also includes NOAA, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, among other entities.

In fact, Thomas says she’s witnessed playful otter behavior on this survey that she’s never seen in helicopters looking at the animals.

Scanning for Debris

Debris in general is an issue offshore and on the beaches of Washington. A rotating current system called the North Pacific Gyre is an oceanic trap for garbage and debris, accumulating after a long journey over from Asia. Though tsunami debris is a high-profile issue, the other debris churning offshore is also a concern, explains Jacobs. Often fishing nets, made of monofilament nylon that doesn’t biodegrade, get caught up in the system, endangering wildlife that gets trapped along the way and also sometimes getting stuck on and damaging coral reefs.

“Part of the Holy Grail for us is to find and remove these nets at sea,” says Jacobs.

And detecting these nets is challenging, he says, because their appearance and condition change over time. While they might initially being scanning the area for this fine filament, over time that material becomes covered with algae and eventually encrusted with barnacles.

Previously NOAA has imaged these garbage patches using P-3s and C-130s in conjunction with information from satellite imagery. Eventually, it plans to outfit a Global Hawk with a sensor from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory called UAVSAR (unmanned aerial vehicle synthetic aperture radar). Jacobs says he hopes one day NOAA can leverage satellite imagery that’s then closer examined by a Global Hawk. From there, a ship could close in on the debris, image it with a Puma and collect it at sea. Jacobs says this concept is still years down the line.

The current Puma-quadcopter combination is still advanced compared to the previous method of finding these nets, which Jacobs says involved having divers behind a skiff manually marking nearshore nets in the water.

After this mission, the Puma system had little downtime. On 1 July it was transitioned over to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, where it will be stationed for a joint NOAA-Coast Guard ice survey and oil spill evaluation. 

NOAA’s Future Plans

Jacobs says NOAA’s recent surveys offshore Washington, California and Florida are building toward an ultimate mission off the northwestern Hawaiian islands. NOAA has been building protocols for two years for the survey, and the team can leverage their past mission expertise to the new environment, says Jacobs. “That’s what we’ve been building towards, because we really think this is the vision,” he says, “that these small UAS be considered more a ship enhancement tool for big research ships that extend its effective area of operation and increase safety at a miniscule, marginal cost above what we’re out there doing anyway.”

The director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is interested in eventually turning all this research into a UAS center of excellence. The center would bring together industry, academia, and government agencies to develop, test, and deploy unmanned systems and sensors for marine research and monitoring.

“If the program keeps gaining funding and support within the agency we may add more permanent staff. … It’s kind of a year for us to help formalizing building the program,” says Jacobs. “It’s kind of an exciting time.”