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Monday October 21, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday October 21, 2013 MYT 8:07:50 AM
by sandi doughton
Scientists are using drones to track land-use changes, do wildlife surveys, map marine debris, monitor oil spills and explore inhospitable terrain.
The military roles of unmanned aerial aircraft are being replaced with scientific ones.
STANDING in the stern of the research vessel Tatoosh, Nick Morgan held aloft what looked like an oversized model airplane. As the propeller started to whirl, Morgan cocked his arm and flung the plane as if he were throwing a spear.
The 1.3m-long aircraft banked gracefully and spiralled up into a cloud-streaked sky. Within seconds, it blended in among the targets it was dispatched to spy on: cormorants, gulls and murres wheeling above the tiny islands on the US Washington coast where the birds nest and rear their young.
The miniature plane is a drone, a Puma AE, part of a US$350,000 (RM1,085,000) unmanned aircraft system.
Once used mostly for surveillance and reconnaissance on the battlefield, small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the Puma are quickly catching on in the civilian world – with scientists like those aboard the Tatoosh leading the way.
The team of federal biologists spent two weeks flying fixed-wing Pumas and mini-helicopters over remote beaches to test their usefulness for seabird and marine-debris surveys.
“They’re wonderful tools,” said Matt Pickett, who helped co-ordinate the project for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “They have the potential to change the way scientists do marine monitoring.”
The US Pacific Northwest is a hot spot for putting the devices to work in the service of science. Researchers in Washington are using drones to monitor restoration of the recently un-dammed Elwha River.
Scientists from Oregon State University are flying drones over potato fields to see if thermal sensors can identify ailing plants early enough to save them.
Drone-mounted cameras have also helped biologists identify habitat for endangered pygmy rabbits, while fish managers use mini-choppers to map chinook salmon spawning sites on the Snake River.
Projects on the drawing board include the use of drones for avalanche and snowpack surveys and glacier monitoring.
Elsewhere, researchers are using drones to explore the last great repositories of ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska.
About two dozen universities and research organisations, including NASA and NOAA, have registered as drone operators, according to a list released last year to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Some of those researchers are tracking wildfires, ozone concentrations, oil spills, volcano ash, changes in sea ice and sea lions.
The US Geological Survey (USGS) first experimented with drones during Mount St Helens’ 2004 eruption. The small airplanes didn’t fare well in turbulent weather and the sensors weren’t as good as those on manned helicopters. But the experiments proved it was possible to collect data from an erupting volcano with drones.
Since 2004, cameras, heat sensors and other instruments have shrunk dramatically while navigation and control systems have improved. Coupled with the development of smaller, more affordable vehicles, those advances are helping fuel a science rush. Unmanned-aircraft manufacturers are also courting new customers as the US pulls back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, Juris Vagners, emeritus professor of aeronautics at the University of Washington, cautioned that scientists and public agencies need to steer clear of the hype, consider public reaction and do the math to figure out whether unmanned aircraft are cheaper or better than traditional methods,
NOAA’s operations on the Washington coast this summer are part of a two-year project to evaluate the costs and benefits of unmanned aircraft. The craft seem particularly promising for hard-to-reach places and jobs that are tedious or dangerous, and can be operated for about a tenth the cost of a manned helicopter, said co-ordinator Todd Jacobs.
Federal biologists survey seabirds on the Washington coast every year, mostly by helicopter, said Sue Thomas, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But several survey crews have died in accidents across the country.
In the cabin of the research boat just after the Puma took wing, Thomas watched video from the camera mounted on the little plane’s belly.
“These are all common murres,” she said, pointing to tight-packed clusters of birds nesting on top of a small island. The noise of a chopper can spook wildlife, Thomas added, but the seabirds seemed oblivious to the silent observer circling overhead.
The cost factor
The biggest obstacles to wider scientific use of drones are the cost and cumbersome regulations, Vagners said. The price of off-the-shelf aircraft ranges from US$10,000 to US$350,000 (RM31,000 to RM1,085,000) or more, but is dropping rapidly.
That’s still a lot of money for many scientists. “Working with drones isn’t nearly as cheap or easy as I thought it would be,” said University of Washington environmental engineer Jessica Lundquist, who plans to experiment with small aircraft for avalanche control and snowpack monitoring in the Cascade Mountains. Most of the craft require two trained operators. And getting approval to fly from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can take six months to a year. “It has been such a niche industry,” said Lundquist, “I think there’s a tonne of potential, but it’s not as far along as you would think.”
Though the University of Washington is a hub for development of computer programs, gyroscopes and control systems for drones, most researchers there test their craft indoors only, because of the FAA restrictions. Much of the burden will be lifted by 2015, when the FAA adopts national regulations for small drones. In the meantime, many researchers limit their outdoor operations to restricted military airspace, where it’s easier to get permission.
The battery-powered Pumas NOAA tested on the Washington coast have a range of about 13km, and can fly for two hours at a stretch.
Weighing in at 5.8kg, the Pumas can be disassembled and carried in a backpack.
The portability and stealth that appeals to wildlife biologists is part of what some people fear about drones. When Port Angeles resident Pearl Raines Hewett found out about the seabird surveys, she fired off an angry letter to her congressional representative.
After so many instances of government snooping, like the National Security Agency combing through phone and Internet records, Hewett said she doesn’t trust scientists who say the images and data they collect will be used only for research.
Indeed, NOAA has experimented with the use of its drones for law enforcement, searching for illegal fishing operations off the coasts of Florida and California, Jacobs said. When the Puma flying near La Push filmed two people walking on the beach, he explained that all human images are erased from the video.
Though some residents on the US Olympic Peninsula were unhappy to have their turf invaded by tiny aircraft, the scientific use of drones hasn’t yet drawn the same type of privacy concerns.
Several US states, including Idaho and Montana, enacted restrictions this year on the use of drones for law enforcement or to spy on people.
“For things like surveying eagle nests and trumpeter swans and vegetative analysis, I would say 99 out of 100 people have supported what we’re doing,” said Mike Hutt, who manages 36 drones – one of the largest civilian fleets – for the USGS and the Department of the Interior.
Today’s small drones aren’t the perfect spying machines many people envision, said Kristi Morgansen, a University of Washington engineer working to make the aircraft more agile and manoeuvrable. Most cameras used for scientific research have a narrow field of view, and the unmanned systems don’t do a good job of searching wide swaths of terrain for small targets. Improvements are inevitable, though.
Most researchers working with drones are convinced they will soon be just another research tool. As in all field work, drones operate subject to weather.
The group lost several days to rain and high winds, but the flying robots themselves are surprisingly robust, Jacobs said onboard the Tatoosh, as the Puma circled in for a landing and splashed down on its belly just off the stern, wings detaching as they are designed to do.
Morgan grabbed the plane and hauled it back into the boat, ready for another run. “They’re wonderful tools. They have the potential to change the way scientists do marine monitoring.” – The Seattle Times/McClatchy Tribune Information Services
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Environment, Environment, ecowatch, wildlife, drone
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