The Marine Conservation Ecology Unmanned Systems Facility, located at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C., flew its first operational missions earlier this month to support University of North Carolina researchers who were mapping nesting beaches and at-sea aggregations of endangered olive ridley sea turtles in Costa Rica.
In addition to flying research missions for private and public partners, the new facility will offer courses, starting in summer 2016, to train students and working professionals on how to use drones in coastal research and conservation. It also is developing UAS-centered marine science educational outreach programs for local high school students.
Switzerland-based drone company senseFly will provide the facility with access to its UAS technologies and platforms.
“We achieved initial operational capacity earlier this month and anticipate being awarded our [Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)] Section 333 exemption in coming weeks,” says David Johnston, executive director of the new facility and assistant professor of the practice of marine conservation ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
Program manager and retired U.S. Air Force Col. Everette Newton adds, “The facility’s new education program will provide students and professionals with the basic skills and knowledge needed to achieve state and FAA certification and operate unmanned aircraft systems safely and effectively in marine environments.”
Skills covered in the course will include flight planning, mission execution, data management and analysis, and an overview of federal and state airspace restrictions and rules. Students may also be given the chance to build and fly their own drones.
Johnston, Newton and Julian Dale, lead engineer of the new facility, established the new facility at the Duke Marine Lab following eight months of safety and operational training using UAS for coastal and marine research in eastern North Carolina, Florida, Nova Scotia and Hawaii.