Oceans Unmanned's freeFLY program uses UAS for large whale entanglement response efforts

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In partnership with NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS), Oceans Unmanned, Inc. has launched the freeFLY Program, which is a new initiative that uses small UAS to provide aerial support for large whale entanglement response efforts off of Maui, Hawaii.

The freeFLY Program provides training, equipment, and management oversight to a network of local, Maui-based volunteer UAS operators that are available to support the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network, led by HIHWNMS.

​The goals of the Network are to safely free endangered humpback whales and other marine animals from life threatening entanglements, while also collecting crucial information that will lower entanglement threats in the future.

According to Oceans Unmanned, the addition of aerial imagery provided by on-scene, vessel-launched UAS will provide responders “improved situational awareness and increased safety for both the animal and responder.”

“Cutting free a 45-foot, 40-ton free swimming animal is not an easy task; it can be dangerous. Drones are going to be a critical tool in reducing the risks involved in this type of effort,” says Ed Lyman, NOAA Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator.

“As a public reminder, it is important to understand that response to entangled whales involving a close approach (less than 100 yards) may only be attempted by persons authorized under permit by NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.”

Brian Taggart, Chief Pilot for Oceans Unmanned, says, “while these off-the-shelf systems can be relatively easy to fly while on land, operating off a small boat and providing the responders the imagery they need in a timely manner can be challenging.”

“The freeFLY program will ensure all operators are well trained and equipped, operate at the highest level of safety and professionalism, and meet the requirements under the NOAA permit.”

A recent training class has certified three local volunteer operators to support response efforts through the end of the current whale season, and more training is scheduled in the fall.

DJI and DARTdrones will provide additional support for the freeFLY program. DJI is donating its Phantom 4 Pro systems and accessories to the program, while DARTdrones has provided online Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate test preparation classes for experienced candidates to become FAA compliant as required.