Seabirds nesting on the small, rocky islands off the western coast of the North Olympic Peninsula have nothing to fear from what may look to them like a strange creature swooping over their homes.
The thing doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep and has no mind of its own.
Its actions are controlled by a team of researchers bobbing on the Pacific Ocean in a 38-foot vessel from as far as a mile away.
The winged object is a small, unmanned, propeller-driven aircraft called a Puma, and researchers, beginning last week, are taking it skyward most every day — weather permitting — until this Saturday.
The scientists hope to learn how the burgeoning field of unmanned aerial vehicles, often collectively called drones, can help survey the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary by monitoring marina animal populations and patrolling the coasts for marine debris.
“This project is really testing this new technology for how it might have applications for doing science in the sanctuary,” said Carol Bernthal, superintendent of the marine sanctuary, which encompasses 3,310 square miles of coastline from Cape Flattery south to roughly Grays Harbor.
“[We're] really trying to use it for a variety of applications to see how it works,” said Bernthal, who is based in Port Angeles.
Staff with the Unmanned Aircraft System Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, are operating the 13-pound aircraft with the help of sanctuary staff, said Vernon Smith, spokesman for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, based in Maryland.
They began testing the Pumas as research tools last week, Smith said.
NOAA bought three Puma systems from California-based AeroVironment Inc. for about $400,000 and are in the process of testing them at national marine sanctuaries in Hawaii, Southern California and Washington state, Smith said.
Bernthal said the Olympic marine sanctuary was one of three chosen during a nationwide competitive application process.
The NOAA-owned aircraft eventually will be sent elsewhere after the testing program is finished, Bernthal added.
“This is the first time it’s been used in Washington for the marine sanctuary here,” said Ed Bowlby, the research coordinator for the sanctuary and lead scientist on the Puma test missions.
Working on Tatoosh
Bowlby said he and six other staff from the sanctuary, NOAA’s unmanned aircraft program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spent three eight-hour days last week plying the waters off the Peninsula in the Tatoosh, the sanctuary’s 38-foot research vessel based in LaPush.
The team sailed between 20 and 25 miles north and south of LaPush testing the 9-foot-wide Puma.
The crew of the Tatoosh kept the boat within a mile of the remotely controlled aircraft while operators on board watched a live feed from the Puma’s onboard video camera.
“You’re literally getting the bird’s-eye view,” Bowlby said.
The Puma was used to take high-definition video and still photographs of colonies of common murres, a type of black-and-white seabird Bernthal described as a “flying football,” and groups of seals as the aircraft flew over the sanctuary’s coastal waters.
Bernthal said being able to get closer than any manned airplane to observe wildlife is one of the many positives of using a quiet, low-impact piece of technology such as a remotely controlled aircraft.
Over three days of missions last week — Thursday and Friday flights were canceled due to high winds — Bowlby said the Puma collected about 9 gigabytes of video and photos that researchers with the sanctuary and U.S. Fish and Wildlife will review in the coming weeks to see if the results are on par with or surpass survey footage from manned aircraft.
“I see a lot of opportunities, and at the moment, I’m favorably impressed, but the proof is always in the pudding,” Bowlby said.
If NOAA decides to keep the Pumas in service and stations one at the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Bernthal said, the small aircraft would be a huge asset for the sanctuary in its ongoing mission to observe and protect the thousands of miles of costal habitat off the Peninsula.
“It’s a great opportunity to test new technologies that will help us see what’s happening in the ocean,” Bernthal said.