Traditional methods for remote wildlife and environmental research can be unreliable, dangerous and expensive. Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks used the Aeryon Scout to demonstrate the increased reliability and effectiveness of conducting ship based wildlife monitoring using a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAV.
Operating in the Bering Sea around the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, one Aeryon Scout was used to fly for more than 6 hours during 31 flights with a total flight distance of 60,124 meters. During this time, researchers captured close to 60 gigabytes of data including more than 6000 high resolution images.
The primary mission objective was to capture clear and detailed images and video of sea lion haul-outs to be used by NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory researchers to count, track, and observe the behaviour of Steller sea lions. This mission required a UAV that could be launched and retrieved from a small research vessel, operate remotely beyond operator line-of-sight, and that would be quiet enough to avoid disturbing the animals once onsite. It also required a UAV that could handle the extreme environmental and technical complexities involved with ship-based research in the dangerous Bering Sea. The mission was observed by an FAA representative who remained with the researchers on the vessel for 21 days.
Click here to read the press release surrounding this mission
Estimating wildlife populations on the remote Aleutian islands traditionally required researchers to go ashore and climb to elevated areas to take photographs or rely on expensive hired aircraft for aerial imagery. With the Scout system, researchers were able to remain on their research vessel while sending the Scout to capture detailed images from more than 1.6 km away.
Using the Scout’s touchscreen map-based user interface facilites ease of flight control and navigation, and enables the operator to remain focused on capturing imagery rather than piloting a demanding remote controlled UAV – particularly when operating beyond operator line-of-sight. Operating from a ship that is constantly in motion presents no challenge to the Scout which continuously tracks its home location and can return automatically at the press of a button.
Wind and weather conditions in the Bering Sea can be extremely harsh and unpredictable. The Scout system is fully ruggedized, weather-sealed, and designed for stable flight in high winds, allowing it to operate reliably in environments where other UAVs and manned aircraft cannot fly. Because the Scout can fly despite difficult weather conditions, researchers can perform counts much more frequently to obtain better research results, and at a lower cost than renting manned aircraft.
There are a number of complexities that make launching and retrieving a UAV from a ship extremely challenging. Avoiding masts, towers, rigging, and other physical objects on the ship, while battling 3-4 meter sea swells and shifting 50 kph winds requires the advanced flight stabilization and control of the Scout. Magnetic fields and a constantly changing ship location further complicate the process. The Scout’s advanced internal sensors and stabilization technologies allow it to remain controlled even in these challenging conditions.
Researchers used the Scout’sAutoGrid™ technology to automatically fly large sections of beaches where sea lions were located. The images from these flights were used to generate improved maps for future operations and to create extremely detailed orthomosaic images, digital elevation models, and 3D models. Scout imagery is automatically geotagged with metadata which allows for automated processing with off-the-shelf GIS software.
The Scout captured more than 6,000 high resolution images which were used to determine accurate sea lion population data, including identification of gender and approximate age. When images were captured at lower altitudes, images were detailed enough that researchers were able to read ID tags off the animals. Researchers also used the Scout to capture stationary video of the sea lions for observational purposes. The Scout’s quiet operation and small visual profile allowed it to hover only 15 meters above the haul-outs without disrupting the sea lions which provided the opportunity for continuous, natural observation.