Researchers often find that watching marine life into order to gather data about behavior and abundance can be tedious and time-consuming, but recent studies indicate unmanned aircraft may offer a way around such obstacles, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).
UAF scientists recently conducted a field study with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to see if unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could take high-resolution video above sea otters to watch them feed without disturbing them. A second study used UAVs to take photos of beaches at low tide to help make a monitoring program more efficient. If these trial studies prove useful, this technology could be used in many regions, says UAF.
“For the most part, the otters didn’t care,” says Brenda Konar, a professor at UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. “Some would slowly swim away, but most were more interested in eating.”
Daniel Monson, a wildlife researcher with the USGS Alaska Science Center, had been thinking for a couple of years about how unmanned aircraft might help scientists watch sea otters forage. Currently, researchers have to stand on a beach with high-powered spotting telescopes to watch how long an otter dives for food, what it brings up and how long it takes to eat the morsel, explains Monson.
The telescopes allow visuals to certain distances but don’t capture how and what sea otters eat farther from the beach. Also, the telescopes can’t be used easily on a rocking boat – which is why observers stand on the shore. UAF says unmanned aircraft might solve the observation problem if they don’t alter the animal’s behavior.
UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences researchers asked a team from the Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) to help them on the two studies. ACUASI, which heads the Pan Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, sent two small, rotary-wing aircraft to conduct the field tests in Homer, Alaska.
The tide mission had successes and setbacks, says Sam Vanderwaal, an ACUASI engineer and project manager. “We were able to fly and get data, but we needed higher resolution for the images. It was a proof of concept, and we think we can get better details.”
The team waited until the tide went out and then placed a PVC pipe grid on the uncovered shore. Researchers then counted snails, sea stars, kelp, clusters of sea grass and other living things in the quadrats.“We want to record what plants and animals are living on these beaches now so that we can monitor natural changes and changes that may be occurring with climate,” Konar adds. “This will let us see what changes happen in the case of a big event, such as an oil spill.”