Unmanned aircraft soars over Peninsula coast for researchers


By Jeremy Schwartz  Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIC COAST NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY — 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 marine 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.