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Researchers using drones to study Hawaii wildlife

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists Todd Jacobs, kneeling, and Tanner Sims prepared to launch an unmanned drone to survey wildlife in Pacific Ocean waters near the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands on June 19. (AP Photo/NOAA, Justin Rivera)

Scientists are using drones to survey endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other wildlife in Hawaii, officials said Tuesday.

Next week, researchers will be flying a NASA Ikhana plane similar to the Air Force’s Predator drone to the remote atolls of Nihoa, Necker and French Frigate Shoals.

The atolls are all within the vast expanse of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. This offers a great opportunity to test the unmanned aerial vehicle, including its optical and infrared imaging systems, said Todd Jacobs, a project scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s unmanned aircraft program.

The plane will survey sea turtles and sea birds in addition to seals, Jacobs said. It will search for marine debris and monitor vessel traffic.

The Ikhana may conduct surveys around Niihau island if there’s an opportunity, Jacobs said.

The plane has a wingspan of 66 feet and may carry thousands of pounds of payload on board. It has previously been used to map wildfires on the U.S. mainland.

Scientists last month used a smaller drone called the Puma to survey wildlife in the Papahanaumokuakea monument. The Puma is a 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft with a 9-foot wingspan.

The Puma is quiet and hard to see, so it doesn’t disturb wildlife, yet it may carry high-resolution cameras on board.

"They’re a dream for doing wildlife surveys in remote places," Jacobs said.

Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said the Puma surveys for monk seals were "wildly successful."

The drone identified seals on the beach, mother-pup pairs and other details important for monitoring the population, he said in a statement.

Scientists plan to compare data from the Ikhana and Puma, along with information gathered with more traditional methods, to determine the best use of unmanned aircraft for managing the monument.

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