Federal officials test drone as monitor of ocean wildlife

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a demonstration off Oahu’s North Shore this week of a small unmanned aircraft the agency hopes will improve ocean monitoring and aid environmental research in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Puma AE, which has a 10-foot wingspan and weighs 13 pounds, can stay aloft for two hours and capture high-definition still photos and video. It is remotely operated.

Unmanned aircraft have been used to help NOAA researchers and military personnel around the world with oil spills, hurricane tracking, surveillance, combat and other tasks.

If all goes well with the demonstration, which began Wednesday, NOAA is hoping to launch the aircraft from boats next year to help with efforts to preserve marine resources at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, said Todd Jacobs, NOAA deputy superintendent for operations and administration.

It was designed to be quiet and avoid detection, which will allow researchers to observe wildlife at close range, Jacobs said.

“We don’t have to risk personnel being landed on the beaches,” he said. “Exotic species introduction potential gets eliminated and we believe it’ll be less potential for any disturbance of the critters that are being surveyed.”

With debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami beginning to reach U.S. shores, NOAA also wants to use the Puma to help track debris and evaluate its effects.

For the three-day demonstration, which ends today, NOAA scientists are going out on a boat to evaluate the capabilities of the Puma, designed by the Department of Defense for land-based and maritime operations.

They are being accompanied by resource managers from Papahanaumokuakea reserve, the largest conservation area in the United States, and representatives of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

NOAA purchased one system that contains three planes for the demonstration. Officials hope to be able to purchase two more systems, with three aircraft each, for similar research.

Although the technology behind the Puma is relatively new to NOAA, it is not the first unmanned aircraft system used above the ocean in Hawaii. In 2008 a similar aircraft was used to help NOAA researchers locate large amounts of floating debris in the Papahanaumokuakea reserve. Officials removed more than 40 tons of debris.