HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are launching unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to survey wildlife in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but another federal agency is banning their use.
A research drone completed seven flights to collect data on monk seals, turtles, and birds at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument last month. Scientists said the aircraft can gather valuable information without harming wildlife.
"These systems are designed to be quiet and stealthy. They have a very low-profile so the organisms that we're surveying - monk seals for example - they don't even know that the aircraft is there," said Todd Jacobs, project scientist for NOAA Research's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program.
"It was wildly successful, actually. We were able to identify animals on the beach and in the water, identify mother-pup pairs, get a sense of the age class of the animal. All of those are important things for our population monitoring," said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.
The person in charge of flying the unmanned aircraft system was a NOAA pilot familiar with FAA rules. Experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also observed the behavior of birds around the 13-pound drone.
"The Puma (aircraft) does not threaten the birds. They don't flush. They don't attack it. They don't seem to be disturbed," said Jacobs. "But as for crashing and hitting an animal, very, very unlikely, but not impossible."
The use of unmanned aircraft was banned in national parks nationwide in June due to concerns about noise and visitor safety. A loud drone crashed in the Grand Canyon in April. The ban is temporary until the agency completes the time-consuming process of creating new regulations.
"We do have areas that we share jurisdiction along coastlines with the National Park Service and we'll certainly work with the National Park Service when and if we have reason to use UAS in those areas," said Jacobs.
Next week, NOAA researchers will launch NASA's Ikhana unmanned aircraft system to gather data in both the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.