Oceans Unmanned Launches Drone Initiative for Hawaii Whale Conservation

Oceans Unmanned Inc. has announced a new initiative using drones for large-whale entanglement response efforts off of Maui, Hawaii.

The freeFLY initiative was launched in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS), along with additional support from DJI and DARTdrones.

According to Oceans Unmanned, the freeFLY program provides training, equipment and management oversight to a network of Maui-based volunteer drone operators who are available to support the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network, led by HIHWNMS. The network’s goals are to safely free endangered humpback whales and other marine animals from life-threatening entanglements while also gathering valuable information to reduce entanglement threats in the future.

The addition of aerial imagery from on-scene, vessel-launched drones will provide responders improved situational awareness and increased safety for both the animal and responder, says Ocean Unmanned.

“Cutting free a 45-foot, 40-ton free-swimming animal is not an easy task; it can be dangerous. Drones may likely play an important role, as they are a valuable tool toward reducing the risks involved in this type of effort,” explains Ed Lyman, NOAA’s large-whale entanglement response coordinator.

“While these off-the-shelf systems can be relatively easy to fly while on land, operating off a small boat and providing the responders the imagery they need in a timely manner can be challenging,” notes Brian Taggart, chief pilot for Oceans Unmanned. “The freeFLY program will ensure all operators are well-trained and equipped, operate at the highest level of safety and professionalism, and meet the requirements under the NOAA permit.”

A recent training class certified three local volunteer operators to support response efforts through the end of the current whale season, with additional training scheduled in the fall.

DJI is donating Phantom 4 Pro systems and accessories to the program. In addition, DARTdrones has provided online Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate test preparation classes for experienced candidates to become federally compliant, as required.

Oceans Unmanned is a nonprofit organization that facilitates the use of unmanned
technologies and promotes their safe and environmentally conscious operation to protect the ocean and coastal marine environment. NOAA’s HIHWNMS was established in 1992 to protect humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaii. The sanctuary emphasizes research, education and community-based resource protection in a diverse set of conservation programs across the state.


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