NOAA to test unmanned aircraft, Florida Keys

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is set to test whether an unmanned aircraft system can help scientists monitor wildlife and boater use at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

NOAA will be using a Puma UAS, a 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft with a nine-foot wingspan, equipped with real-time video and photo capability to observe sanctuary waters in the upper and lower Florida Keys from Sept. 14-22.

The aircraft, which can be hand launched from land or a boat, is controlled remotely by a pilot. It can fly for up to two hours on a single charge and cover a range of about 50 square miles. The Puma can fly lower and slower than manned aircraft and its quiet operating system allows scientists to gather species population data without disturbing wildlife, according to NOAA.

“Testing unmanned aircraft in the diverse habitats of the Keys will help demonstrate the applicability of this technology in supporting science and resource protection in ecosystems around the world,” said Sean Morton, sanctuary superintendent.

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Protected marine life in the area includes roseate spoonbills, roosting frigate birds, sea turtles and Key deer.

If the test missions are successful, the unmanned aircraft could be used in marine protected areas worldwide, NOAA said.