The machines are definitely rising. The drones, it sometimes seems, are all around us.
Commercial, military, scientific–it makes no difference. Stories of alleged terrorists killed in the Middle East by American missiles launched from remotely piloted American aircraft have been commonplace for years. Go to any beach on the island and you’re likely to see a small quad-rotor drone buzzing above surfers and even just people relaxing on the sand.
Wedding photographers–like local shooter Sean M. Hower–are starting to use drones. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar has started to use drones to monitor its 37,000 acres of cane on Maui. In Los Angeles, a Singaporean marketing company recently deployed a drone that tracked people carrying cell phones, then zeroed in on their location so they could receive mobile phone advertisements. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to debate how it should regulate the flying of small drone aircraft by the general public, law enforcement agencies are increasingly looking to robots for surveillance (the Maui Police Department recently took possession of a tracked drone that can climb stairs, open doors and even hold and fire a gun).
And now we have drones that can watch whales. But it’s not activity companies that are operating these drones–it’s the federal government. Specifically, it’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that’s working with these latest drones.
“From daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings and climate monitoring to fisheries management, coastal restoration and supporting marine commerce, NOAA’s products and services support economic vitality and affect more than one-third of America’s gross domestic product,” states the NOAA website. “NOAA’s dedicated scientists use cutting-edge research and high-tech instrumentation to provide citizens, planners, emergency managers and other decision makers with reliable information they need when they need it.”
That’s right: the part of the federal government that deals with the weather is now playing around with robots. And they’ve been testing them right here, in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary–1,400 square miles of protected ocean around our islands.
In early February, NOAA researchers began testing two drones (though the operators loathe that term) in the sanctuary waters. Both are very different than the cute little quadcopters that make up the bulk of commercial sales. The first is a video camera-equipped aircraft called the Puma.
“The Puma is a 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft with a nine-foot wingspan, equipped with real-time video and photo capability,” states a Feb. 25 NOAA news release. “The aircraft can be hand-launched and recovered from any location on land or at sea from a boat. Durable and rugged for deployment to remote marine areas and repeat usage, the aircraft can fly for up to two hours on a single charge and cover a range of about 50 square miles.”
The second NOAA robot tested out here is even more unusual–it stays in the water.
“The Liquid Robotics Wave Glider has a propulsion system that uses both wave-powered and stored solar energy to navigate challenging ocean environments,” states the NOAA press release. “Its innovative design allows it to cost-effectively collect and transmit data gathered during missions of [sic] lasting up to a year, over thousands of miles, or while remaining in place. Individual or small group glider deployments carry suites of sensors and operate individually or in fleets.”
Matt Pickett, NOAA’s aviation operations director for the national marine sanctuaries, told me that the agency has been using unmanned aerial vehicles (“we don’t like to use the term ‘drones’”) for a few years now. And they’ve been used in a lot of places, for a lot of different purposes:
• In 2013, NOAA researchers worked with the US Coast Guard to show how a Puma aircraft could help in responding to arctic oil spills.
• A team of researchers from NOAA and the Vancouver Aquarium used a hexacopter in 2014 to follow killer whale pods off British Columbia–the first time such a vehicle was used in killer whale research. Sixty such flights resulted in video footage and 30,000 photographs.
• In September 2014, a NOAA P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft launched four Coyote drones off Bermuda to help collect data on Hurricane Edouard.
• In the spring of 2014, NOAA scientists used a Puma to conduct fish population surveys off the coast of Georgia.
In the sanctuary tests, “two Wave Gliders, equipped with acoustic sensors and positioned a few miles apart, were able to identify and relay the location of a target vessel that entered their vicinity to the operations center,” stated the NOAA news release. Then researchers took the information gathered from the Wave Gliders and fed it to the Puma, which found and photographed the target vessel. “The test simulated real-life management situations that could include vessels and marine life in distress, marine surveys, and access within marine protected areas,” stated the NOAA news release.
So why the sudden fascination with devices that most of the public see as either expensive toys or weapons of assassination?
“They allow us to monitor without man-made disturbances and at a lower cost,” said Pickett. “They’ve let us see sea otters in playful behavior that we’ve never been able to see before. They allow us to go places we can’t get to safely–remote, rugged, dangerous areas.”
Amazingly enough, modern drones even allow NOAA researchers to follow birds in flight. Recent experiments outlined in Feb. 3, 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science blog post showed that only dropping down on the birds from a 90 degree angle really spooked birds (in fact, look up the words “birds attack drones” online and see just how unafraid avians are of buzzing copters).
Pickett said that they were recently out in Hawaii testing the UAVs because of our “beautiful weather and clear water,” but he also said that the vehicles would be directly useful in the sanctuary.
“One of their uses in Hawaii will be whale entanglement,” he said. “A week ago a whale got entangled, and they could have been a big help. That’s one of our long-term goals.”
Pickett also said that though commercially sold drones can usually be flown out of the box (though the FAA may someday require pilot licenses for certain drones), training operators in how to use UAVs like the Wave Glider and Puma isn’t easy.
“We just went through a two-week military course that was pretty intense,” Pickett said. “It was challenging, with a lot of technical training for the mapping system and communications system.”
The mischief in me asked Pickett–a government researcher–if using the Puma and Wave Glider was fun. “It’s always fun to be on the water,” he said before quickly returning to government speak. “But I’d say they’re challenging–it’s always challenging to get all these pieces together in an operation.”
As for when these things will be fully operational, Pickett said that hasn’t yet been determined. “We’re testing them in sanctuaries all over the country, and we’re not really ready to deploy them,” he said.
That’s probably for the best, because the FAA is still nowhere near ready to issue flight rules governing drones. This, despite the fact that the industry is growing very fast.
“Some 73 percent of respondents to a Reuters/Ipsos online poll released on Thursday said they want regulations for the lightweight, remote-control planes that reportedly have been involved in an increasing number of close calls with aircraft and crowds,” stated a Feb. 5, 2015 Reuters story. “Forty-two percent went as far as to oppose private ownership of drones, suggesting they prefer restricting them to officials or experts trained in safe operation.”
Though the Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that those surveyed were concerned about the use of drones in surveillance, most had no problem with law enforcement flying them. “Sixty-eight percent of respondents support police flying drones to solve crimes, and 62 percent support using them to deter crime,” stated the story.
The FAA is still months away from issuing a directive on drones, and public comment could take another year or more. That’s why I wasn’t surprised at Pickett’s answer when I asked him if the recent drone tests in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary showed any shortcomings.
“Technically, there were no shortcomings,” he said. “But in terms of regulations, the FAA is very restrictive, for good reason. The technology is ahead of the regulatory environment. That’s one of the challenges.”
Photos courtesy NOAA/Liquid Robotics