Unmanned Aerial System Research

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Unmanned Aerial System: Behind the Scenes


Scientists and living resource managers are often faced with the challenge of estimating numbers of animals in large groups or of obtaining measurements on animals that are inaccessible (like large whales) or are dangerous to handle. Aerial photography is the tool most often used to meet both of these challenges, but there are many areas where manned aircraft are not available due to the remoteness of the sites or the costs associated with aircraft support.

The Antarctic presents field scientists with the challenges of estimating the numbers of penguins in groups that can include hundreds of thousands of animals trying to monitor status of leopard seals that can weigh over a thousand pounds and have notoriously bad dispositions. Scientists from the Southwest fisheries Science Center's Protected Resources and Antarctic Ecosystems Divisions are collaborating with Don LeRoi, Aerial Imaging Solutions (AIS), in an effort to develop an effective and safe platform that scientists can take into the field and collect vertical images of exceptionally high resolution.

In 2011, Wayne Perryman, Steve Gardner (ViaSat Corp), Don LeRoi (AIS), and CDR Nancy Ash took three aircraft to the US field station at Cape Shirreff, Livinston Island, Antarctica to evaluate their performance in this challenging environment. Result from this effort were even better than expected. The aircraft handled the strong winds and cold temperatures very well. Also, these electric powered platforms are so quiet in flight that we saw no response from the pinnipeds or penguins at altitudes of around 100 ft.

Scientist Team

Wayne and Steve The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries Disclaimer

Steve Gardner (left) and Wayne Perryman (right)

Don LeRoi The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries Disclaimer

Don LeRoi

Nancy The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries Disclaimer

Flight Ops, CDR Nancy Ash

Flight Ops

Testing the UAS

Click on images below to view video

hex-takeoff image

UAS deployment

chinstrap image

handheld video of Chinstraps

Perryman maneuvers it into position above a small group of penguins and seals, taking images to accurately count the number in the colonies. The image resolution is consistently excellent and penguins are easily identified and counted with respect to species and chicks.


Image of a colony used to count the number of penguins.

Antarctic fur seals

Antarctic fur seal aggregations including several pups chicks

It is essential to find more efficient and safer methods to collect measurements of leopard seals to generate accurate weight before they can be safely handled by scientists on the ground. Scientists collect data from leopard seals by physically examining them. To be able to even get close to one of them, they have to anesthetize it. Perryman highlights, “A leopard seal is about a thousand pound animal, it’s mostly teeth, and it’s a very dangerous animal to work with.” Proper dosage of the anesthetic is critical because too much anesthesia can be extremely dangerous to the animal and not enough of a dosage can cause risks for the scientists. Working with these animals remotely with aerial photographs will be safer for the human and safer for the seal. Unmanned aerial systems provide a disturbance free alternative for measuring size and shape of leopard seals.

leopard seal (2)

Leopard seal on Livingston Island bares its teeth at researchers. Using a UAS to get close to these aggressive predators might be a good idea.

leopard seal 2

Photo of a leopard seal taken from a UAS. Scientists use these photographs to measure the seal.

At altitudes above 23 m and between 27 and 43 m they saw no sign that any pinnipeds (fur seals, Weddell seals, or leopard seals) or penguins, respectively, were responding to the aircraft. Wayne says, “You can tell a lot about the reproductive and nutritive condition of an animal based on its shape.” From the photos, scientists can estimate the number of penguins in colonies and generate the weight by measuring the length and width of individual animals. By monitoring weight gain among the seals, scientists hope to better understand the energetics of the species and how they structure their ecological community through predation.

The digital revolution has moved consumer technology to the cutting edge. During the upcoming field season, Perryman will hand the controls of the UAS to NOAA scientist Doug Krause, the lead researcher on the leopard seal study. Krause and his team will collect data both by air and on the ground, allowing them to calibrate the method for converting remote measurements into weight estimates.

Unmanned aerial systems will open the door for us to conduct research in a wider range of environments. These technologies are going to help us do this research more safely, and they are very cost-effective. Perryman also has some ideas about where the new technology will take him, such as inside the plume of a whale as it blows. By following closely above a whale, then swooping in to sample the plume at just the right moment, a drone can yield data on hormone levels, genetic markers, and other clues to the animal’s condition. This idea is quickly advancing and is in the near future. To take a quick peek in the early phases, see Wayne's expedition to the South Pacific The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries Disclaimeroff New Zealand, where two unmanned aerial systems were tested in the study of sperm whales. To learn more about the daily adventures, challenges and successes of the Sperm Whales New Zealand project, check out the expedition blogs. The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries Disclaimer“We’ve got a technology that works really well,” Perryman says, and he and other NOAA scientists are quickly imagining new ways to use it.

Perryman, W., Ash, LCDR N., LeRoi, D., Gardner, S., Goebel, M. Evaluation of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems as Tools for Assessment of Krill Predators in the Antarctic-Final Report, 23.

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uas ppt image