Unmanned Aircraft Aids in Monk Seal Research



A NOAA ship photographed by a Puma UAS. Photo: AeroVironment.

In September, a research vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used an unmanned aircraft to aid in its operations supporting the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

The annual research consists of setting up temporary field camps at multiple monk seal breeding locations between May and September. 

NOAA’s UAS program also assessed the value of various UAS platforms for seal population assessments, including counting seals on beaches and identifying individual animals. The program also coordinated the use of advanced optical and lidar payloads for its AeroVironment Puma fixed-wing UAS.

The UAS flew missions at multiple monk seal breeding populations within Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. NOAA will use the data to examine seal population trends and threats through census counts and by identifying individual seals by observing scars and applying hair dye and flipper tags, which can be seen from the UAS.

NOAA says the use of unmanned aircraft will enable researchers to indentify seals more efficiently, and gain access with areas difficult to reach.

“The primary mission for the state, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA is to protect the natural, historical and cultural resources of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument,” says Charles Littnan, lead principal investigator for the monk seal research program. “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 potential collisions with birds, which could injure or kill them, but after 20 hours of flight time over more than 25 flights, no bird strikes were recorded. The seals showed little response to the UAS flying overhead, although the researchers plan more analysis on that.

The seal program will now analyze the video footage and thousands of photographs to find ways to help NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service to help their efforts in the northwestern Hawaiian islands and to start planning future missions.


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