NOAA Fisheries scientists returned from conducting research using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The team and pilots from collaborating organizations tested two types of UAS platforms to determine their value as extra “eyes in the sky” for monitoring wildlife such as Hawaiian monk seals and seabirds and other natural resources of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The use of UAS provides an aerial perspective previously reserved only for birds. This perspective can help to better understand what is happening with the animals, plants, and reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, with potentially less impact than some efforts on the ground. The team spent five days flying UASs at Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, and Pearl and Hermes Reef to provide management agencies with information that will help their future activities to conserve and protect these unique islands. Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and project lead for the UAS operations explained several of the objectives of the UAS flights. “Aerial images help the US Fish and Wildlife service study the distribution of birds and vegetation allowing them to estimate bird population sizes and strategize about eliminating invasive species and replanting native vegetation. Surveys of reefs offer a new way to detect marine debris to help direct removal efforts in the future. Examination of the photos may help the Monument’s archaeologists find new historical sites to study. And there is so much more possible.”
Two UAS systems were used - the Aerovironment “Puma”, a fixed-wing plane, and the APH-22, a 6-rotor copter capable of vertical take offs and landings. The two systems had a variety of payloads to help scientists with their work.
The Puma carried a “super gimbal”, a very high-resolution camera that can swivel to follow individual objects and take photos of plants and wildlife. The Puma can also carry a sophisticated LIDAR system that helps create three-dimensional maps of the islands, maps that managers and scientists can use to determine how vulnerable fragile low-lying sandy islets are to rising sea-level. The PUMA generally flew between 150 – 400 feet and could stay in the air for over 2 hours, making it a great platform for surveying large areas.
The APH-22, with its ability to hover in place, was used for smaller scale work focusing on Hawaiian monk seals. It provided researchers with the ability to visually examine monk seals to identify them and assess whether they needed help. Seals are often in areas that are difficult or dangerous to access. Littnan explained there are often situations where they can’t reach the seal because of a variety of hazards. “Our hope is that the APH-22, with its unique abilities and aerial views, can help us with seal identification and assessment. Particularly for difficult to reach beaches where deploying people could be dangerous because of large swells or other threats. We could launch the APF-22 from the boat, fly it over the seal, and be able to see who the seal is and whether it needs our help”.
In the future these systems may be regularly used by agencies working to conserve the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but first the team needed to ensure they could be used safely. In fact much of the work conducted on this research trip was to assess the impacts to wildlife, particularly to protected birds and monk seals.
Littnan emphasized the importance of ensuring wildlife safety. “The primary mission for the State, US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA is to protect the natural, historical and cultural resources of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. We are always looking for better ways to do our work and unmanned aerial systems could be an important tool in the future. But we wanted to first be sure that these platforms could be operated safely around the abundant wildlife that makes the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands so special.”
The greatest concern was the potential for collisions, which could severely injure or kill birds. Careful observations were made during each flight and after over 25 flights and 20 hours of flight time, no bird strikes were recorded. Some species did occasionally flush or approach the platforms. Seals showed little response to the overflights. More analysis is going to be done on the data to measure the level of impacts and what could be done to reduce them in the future.
Next steps will be to analyze the video footage and thousands of photographs taken to provide products for NOAA and US Fish and Wildlife Service to help their critical efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and to start planning future missions.
“It is an exciting time to be adding a new tool to our toolbox. These platforms can improve our science, make us more efficient, and increase safety”, Littnan said. “But it is important to emphasize that while these tools provide important information it cannot replace the need for people doing fieldwork. It takes people to save seals, translocate endangered birds, to understand and document our history and culture, and everything else necessary to conserve this special place.”
This project was a collaboration between NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, NOAA UAS Program, NOAA Aviation Operations Center, and Aerovironment.