Northwest scientists using drones to spy on nature


By Sandi Doughton

Seattle Times science reporter

LA PUSH, Clallam County —

Standing in the stern of the RV 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 4-foot-long aircraft banked gracefully and spiraled 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 Washington coast where the birds nest and rear their young.

The miniature plane is a drone, a Puma AE, part of a $350,000 unmanned aircraft system. Once used mostly for surveillance and reconnaissance on the battlefield, small, unmanned aircraft like the Puma are quickly catching on in the civilian world — with scientists like those aboard the Research Vessel Tatoosh last month leading the way.