Retired Capt. Brian Taggart serves as the director of Oceans Unmanned, which operates the ECO-Drone program, aimed at informing the public on best practices of flying unmanned aircraft near coastal and marine wildlife.
He previously served as commanding officer of NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Florida, where he was responsible for the overall management of NOAA’s aircraft support services.
1) What is the purpose of ECO-Drone?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about our program. ECO stands for Environmentally Conscience Operations and with our ECO-Drone Program we intend to engage and educate recreational and commercial drone operators to respect ocean wildlife by increasing public awareness of existing marine resource protection regulations and policies that may apply to their use. ECO-Drone is a natural extension of the Know Before You Fly campaign that focuses on the environmental side of flying. We use the term drone in lieu of UAS as our target audience is the general public who may not be as familiar with the term UAS.
2) How did the need for this campaign arise?
Oceans Unmanned, the non-profit which hosts the ECO-Drone program, has worked in partnership with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ (ONMS) Collaborative Center for Unmanned Technologies (CCUT) (http://cisanctuary.org/ccut) and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation on various research projects. We have heard repeatedly about incidents of recreational drones disturbing marine resources and concerns from sanctuary superintendents about the increasing potential for more issues in the future. As drone or UAS use increases, we decided to be proactive and launch an educational campaign as we believe the majority of operators want to be environmentally conscious.
3) What are your main strategies for this campaign?
We have four main strategies with a “Learn Before You Launch” approach:
4) If people want to view wildlife using drones, how can they accomplish this without causing harm or stress to the animals?
We recommend operators refer to the ECO-Drone link in OceansUnmanned.org website to find links to programs such as the Watchable Wildlife Marine Wildlife Viewing Guidelines. Operators should also be familiar regulations and policies such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ overflight regulations, and National Park Service policies.
5) What are some good guidelines for staying clear of animals?
Know what marine life is in the area because they often have specific habitats and some areas have local species viewing guidelines. It’s always fun to get a great pic or video but most marine life is sensitive to human disturbance so approach high and slow. The sound and rapid movement of a UAS often triggers a natural fight or flight response from wildlife. Basically, you want to stay far enough away to not change the behavior of the animal in anyway. For more information, there is a link on our website that includes a NOAA page on Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Responsible Use to Help Protect Marine Mammals.
6) What are some good ways that drones can be used to monitor wildlife?
NOAA and the Department of Interior have utilized both fixed wing and quadcopter UAS for a wide variety of research and monitoring requirements including seabird surveys, blue whale tagging support, killer whale and grey whale monitoring and assessment, and sea otter surveys. When used responsibly, UAS have tremendous potential and an immediate benefit to marine resource managers to monitor species with less impact than traditional methods such as manned aircraft and helicopter surveys.
7) Could this spread to other environments beyond the marine environment?
Yes, we believe the ECO-Drone model and concept can be built upon to include terrestrial wildlife concerns, but for now we’re concentrating on the marine environment, as these systems represent a seismic shift in the ability for disturbances to impact previously very hard to reach marine species, such as nesting seabirds, seal and sea lion haul outs, and even large whales.
8) How are you working to influence policy makers on regulations?
At this point, we don’t see the need for new regulations, just ensuring that existing ones such as the MMPA, ESA, and National Marine Sanctuary regulations are clarified or amended to clarify that drones are restricted in certain areas and around certain species. We plan on further partnership with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to further these goals.
9) Do you plan to get involved in other areas, such as underwater monitoring?
If technology and interest develops and we see a need for an outreach effort to promote ECO operations, we’ll be there. We do not have any immediate plans, although ocean noise is an increasingly relevant environmental concern.